It’s the all-too-common family conundrum: How to function iPhone, Android, Wii, and BlackBerry-free in a world where technology determines our decisions, makes our reservations, arranges our children’s play dates, and some believe that it may soon even make our beds (or something close to it). So how do you get your 21st Century family to ditch the devices and focus on one another, rather than the dot pitch rating of their computer screen?
With children as young as age 3 exhibiting proficiency in certain software applications and effectively using cell phones, connecting in other ways may become challenging and even outmoded by the time they enter college. Generations are growing up without the skills to add, spell, write or even listen effectively without technology, and shedding it all for a week, a day, or even an afternoon may be a daunting prospect for some. In fact, therapists today are beginning to treat technology addiction almost as commonly as more traditional vices like overeating, alcohol, and gambling.
For one family, movie nights, family dinners, trips to the park, and even birthdays and anniversaries had become eclipsed by their reliance on technology, instead of themselves, to carry the message. Using elements like Skype, which made a visual connection possible, traditional Sunday dinner at Nana’s house, an hour away, yielded to a new tradition: the five-minute Skype-assisted phone call.
“We could see one another,” said Pat Settlow of Clearwater, Fla. of the technology, “and for a while we justified not making the trip that way, but it certainly wasn’t the same. It wasn’t as though Nana was in Europe or anything and we had no choice.”
Acknowledging the absence of a basic kind of interaction on which healthy relationships are based, and challenging as it was at first, the Settlows designated one day a week as a “technology-free” day, jettisoning cell phones and all manner of electronic gadgets and devices. Bringing back planned activities such as preparing a meal together, barbecuing at the beach, visiting a relative, going out for ice cream and a movie, volunteering at the local animal shelter, or simply decluttering and organizing the house as a family became an exercise in cooperation and reconnecting, and in some cases, connecting for the first time.
“The back-and-forth and give-and-take of real conversation and eye contact is so important,” Settlow said, acknowledging it had all but disappeared from their daily lives. With the family getting to know, understand, and respect each other again, and though their gadget-less diet can sometimes challenge them with great feats of family creativity, a new structure has emerged with family members actually looking forward to time spent with one another, not Google. “Wii has become We,” Settlow said.
While it may require a little time and discipline at the outset, try taking the following steps with your family to institute device-less family time and activities:
First, sit down together, start slowly, and recall a time when you did something enjoyable as a family. Decide upon an initial plan for a fun activity, with input from everyone. Something simple like a “no cell phones” afternoon where you ride bikes through the park or along the boardwalk, and order pizza back at home, is a good way to get your technology-free feet wet. Make sure you talk about the afternoon, and what was gained or otherwise.
The following week, try extending the afternoon to an entire “no gadget” day where the family does chores together, or volunteers at a food pantry, followed by a reward that may include a trip to the mall, beach, or a movie and ice cream. Again, be sure to discuss as a family what is working and what isn’t and how the idea may be tailored or refined to benefit everyone.
With a little patience, and once they get the hang of it, family members will want to participate more and may even eagerly anticipate a little technology down time.