I don’t like the term “digital detox” - even though I was one of the first people to popularise it.
That was a decade ago, almost to the day, when I embarked on a life-changing experiment to make our family home screen-free for six months. I later wrote a book about that experience, and how it changed the lives of my three teenagers - not to mention myself. That book, The Winter of Our Disconnect, has since been published in many countries and languages, and on many platforms. (Yes, it’s even an ebook.)
My motivations to undertake this extreme experiment were many. I was worried about the way devices had come to dominate my kids’ lives - and my own. I was mourning the loss of simple family pleasures like leisurely mealtimes, reading the Sunday papers in bed, playing board games - and hell, just making eye contact. And then there was the stew of hormones - mine (menopausal) and theirs (adolescent). Desperate times, I remember thinking incoherently at the time, call for desperate measures.
A lot has changed in the ten years since I switched off my iPhone (the original) and hauled our TVs, PCs, gaming consoles, modem and laptops to the backyard shed. For one thing, my amazing kids are all amazing adults now - and I’m a grandmother times three. But the changes in the world around us have been equally dramatic.
In the Information Age - where governments rise and fall on 144 characters - a decade is the equivalent of a geological age.
When we began our experiment, my kids had never heard of Facebook, let alone Instagram or Snapchat. MySpace was their social platform of choice - as it was for every other teen on the planet - and IM-ing on MSN messenger was huge. They had what we would today call “dumb phones” - no internet connection, no camera, no apps.
I was the only person I knew, of any age, with an iPhone, and I literally wore my lime-green iPod mini around my neck on a string. We were still watching DVDs and listening to CDs. We had a landline, for heaven’s sake!
The rules of our experiment were simple: No screen-based technology to be used in our home or in our car. Full stop. Anyone who needed to use the internet for school or work could do so at school or work.
Many people have asked me how I got my kids, then aged 14, 15 and 18, to agree to such an outlandish plan. The answer is twofold. One, I didn’t actually ask their permission - a power move that was completely out of character for me, the world’s biggest pushover of a single mum. And two - if you must know - I bribed them with cash. Quite a lot of it. But I made it clear that payday would only come at the end of the six months, and if and only if there had been no cheating and no mutinies.
It worked. On so many levels.
Slowly - and then all at once - my son swapped his 5 hours of gaming a day for 5 hours of saxophone practice a day. To say it was life-changing would be an understatement. Today, aged 25, he performs and composes professionally. He'd be lost without his digital sound equipment, but remains a proud conscientious objector to social media.
My eldest daughter, then at uni, is a journalist and a mum now - and is militant on the subject of screen-time for pre-schoolers. Like all journalists, her career depends on being connected. But she tracks her own device usage carefully, and takes periodic Facebook fasts when deadlines loom. She and her partner, also a musician, put their phones away after dinner and do jigsaw puzzles over a glass of wine.
The baby of the family, who was a 14-year-old Justin Bieber tragic when we started our experiment, is the mother of a four-month-old daughter and step-mum to a nine-year-old today. (And she is still devoted to JB.) A highly regarded social media consultant, she understands internet culture as only a digital native can. Which perhaps explains why she is so adamant about the need for parental controls. “If parents had any idea what kids are exposed to today online,” she tells me earnestly between Instagram posts, “they would freak.”
All of which gets me back to where I started: my dislike of the phrase “digital detox," with its suggestion that our devices are toxic substances, poisons from which we need purging. I didn’t hold this view then, and I certainly don’t hold it now.
In fact, I love technology. I feel privileged to live at a time when all the world’s knowledge is at my fingertips. When I can download a book or a film or a piece of music whenever I like. When I can keep in touch with friends and family across the world in real time and in what used to be called “living colour.” I love googling stuff, and learning how to do almost anything on YouTube.
In fact, I love technology. I feel privileged to live at a time when all the world’s knowledge is at my fingertips.
Those are advantages I never, ever want to give up.
But at the same time, I have learned that appreciating them requires regular time and space away. Because without distance, we cannot even perceive, let alone make the most of, what exists in our environment.
It’s like the aroma of baking bread. Intoxicating when you enter a bakery - invisible when you work there. Marshall McLuhan perhaps said it best: “We don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish.”
Do you have to pull the plug for six months to experience what technology can - and cannot - do for your family? Definitely not! A screen-free weekend - or even a single day - can be an eye-opening experience for any family (and no bribery required!).
In my next post, I’ll show you exactly how to set it up for success. Stay tuned!
Dr. Susan Maushart is a journalist, author and academic, who regularly creates content for Family Zone. Our parental control and student-internet management solutions are endorsed by leading experts in Australia, New Zealand, the US - and beyond. Learn more, or start your free trial today, at familyzone.com.