By Steve Bennett
Most of us live in the digital fast lane, surrounded by devices that keep us connected 24/7, extend our work capabilities, help us stay informed, and provide on-demand entertainment. Never before have we had so much powerful and exciting technology at our fingertips. The downside is that the technology tends to dominate our lives; we’re plugged in from the moment we wake until the moment we go to sleep, checking emails, following Tweets, updating our Facebook pages, reading news, and so on. If we’re awake, we’re on. . . .
But as many experts attest, we need time away from our devices to reflect about ourselves, sit face to face with family members and friends, and even experience moments of solitude. Our kids need that, too. Does that mean ditching our smartphones, computers, tablets, game devices and the like? Not at all; it simply means carving out some non-digital time for ourselves and our children—even small breaks throughout the day can be enormously beneficial. Here are five ways to help your family members break the “always-on” habit:
• Be a role model. Show your kids that your smartphone is not a life support device and that you can go for a stretch of time without it. When you come home from work and sit down to decompress, don’t reach for your phone to check email or instant messages. Demonstrate the fine art of enjoying downtime and white space—your brain is designed for it.
• Make the dinner table a “no-tech zone.” Establish a technology rule for sit-down meals: no gadgets in the dining area. And no jumping up from the table to check email or answer the phone. Remember, it begins with you; let your family members see you ignore your phone or message alert tone without starting to sweat— that speaks volumes! (Better yet, keep your devices out of hearing range during the meal.) Fill in the gap by starting a conversation that engages family members and encourages them to share ideas and stories. If you link the taste of good food with the warm feelings of good company and good conversation, meal times may become favorite times in your household.
• Have a family reading night. Try to set aside an hour a week in the evening when everyone can read in the same room (if you’re reading on a tablet or eReader, no cheating—stick to the book!). This can be difficult with older kids during the school year, because of homework and school commitments. But even if only other adults in the household and you participate, you’ll set an example and will likely find the experience relaxing and enjoyable.
• Introduce no-tech/low-tech family activities. Younger kids will appreciate a game night during which you spend half an hour or an hour doing traditional board games or easy activities—word games, guessing games, treasure hunts, role play, or indoor “sports” (like “ten cup bowling—you roll a soft foam or rubber ball down a hall way and try to knock over cups or cardboard tubes as if you were in a bowling lane). Teens can get engrossed in charade-style games, word tile games, or any of the popular board games (do some research on the Net beforehand—many of the new strategy board games have won over even the most wired geeks). Whatever you’re enjoying an activity or game, the key is to let the kid in you come out—you’ll probably find a round of good old-fashioned fun to be rejuvenating, too!
• Make a game of going non-digital. Challenge everyone to get unplugged for a specified time on a given day. If going cold turkey is too much for your household, narrow down the challenge (for example, “Betcha you can’t go for two hours without checking email Facebook”). You might also attach a prize—a special outing if everyone hits the target.
How will the idea of taking non-digital breaks go over in your family? That depends on whether it’s perceived as a plus or punishment, how drastic the changes are for your household, and how quickly you implement your “program.” Start with changes in your own life and comment on how you’re enjoying a bit of non-digital time yourself, or how waiting 30 minutes in the morning to check your email gives you a chance to organize your thoughts and get ready for the day. If your dinners currently consist of everyone holding a fork in one hand and a smartphone in the other, start off with banning phone checking until dessert, or whatever course is appropriate. Don’t try to sell the non-tech games as “better” than watching a YouTube video or playing Farmville, but as an alternative — something different and fun to do.
Finally, think about your efforts to “unplug” as a key to restoring balance in your family members’ lives. When you empower your children to feel OK about getting offline now and then, they become masters of the technology, rather than slaves to it. That ability will serve them well as technology inevitably becomes more enmeshed in their daily lives.
Oh, one last caution about taking breaks to smell the real roses: it’s very habit forming.
Steve Bennett is the founder of AuthorBytes and the co-author of “101 Offline Activities You Can Do With Your Child” (BPT Press). Visit him online at www.offlineactivities.com