Unplugged Summers

A friend planned a girls-only vacation with her pre-teen daughter. She booked them a night at a historic Cape Cod inn, rented bicycles, and made a reservation for two at a restaurant she thought her daughter would enjoy. It had been a busy school year, and she liked the idea of walking along the beach together and talking. “Preventive medicine for the teenage years,” she said.

But when the weekend came, my friend found herself contending with unwanted digital guests. On the drive to the Cape, her daughter listened to music on her iPod. When they arrived at the inn, she slumped in a chair, texting friends, with barely a look at their surroundings. At dinner, my friend noticed the telltale signs of under-table texting and blew up. Her daughter’s response surprised her: She reminded her mother that they hadn’t left for biking until my friend had replied to email, that she’d talked on her phone on the drive down. And that her smart phone sat on the table, inches from her elbow.

As we say in our family, Busted!

Summer is a good time to reduce the hold our digital distractions have on us, individually and as families. There’s no better time to replace some portion of our screen time with “green time” spent outside. Consider this summer grab-bag of ideas for making that switch and add your own:

- Use summer’s change of pace. It can be easier to change our routines or try new ones on vacation. This summer, try taking family vacations from technology. The break can last as a long as a walk in the park or extend to a full day, a weekend, or more. On summer drives, play car games or (gasp!) all listen to the same music or audio book instead of retreating to separate digital worlds. Leave digital devices behind on your next trip to the pool or your next family hike.
- Put yourself on a technology diet. Do you check your smart phone during family meals, during conversations with your children, or on vacation? Do you spend significant non-work time on the computer or in front of a screen? You may be giving your children the message that they are less important to you than whatever is on the screen. Try setting aside particular times of the day, or of a vacation, to spend time with your children without any digital distractions.
- Send the children to a technology-free camp. Or the entire family. Many summer camps insist that campers surrender their electronic devices while they’re at camp. “Without the persistent interruption of text messages, Facebook updates, and even the quainter notion of a phone call, campers become more grounded and invested in their surroundings, relationships, and activities,” says Laura Gillespie of The Aloha Foundation. AMC’s family camps encourage guests to keep cell phone and other technology use to a minimum.
- Turn off the power. If you don’t use electricity, it’s hard to keep the technology habit going, even with batteries. Susan Maushart put her three children through a “blackout bootcamp” — several weeks without electricity, in which light came from candles and food was stored in a cooler of ice — and then instituted a six-month digital media ban. (And then wrote a book about the experience, The Winter of Our Disconnect.) Without electronic stimulation, Maushart’s children oriented themselves differently in what they called “RL,” or the Real World, spending more time with friends, playing music, reading, and “blossoming,” in Maushart’s words.

Backpacking trips offer similar opportunities for slowed-down time and deeper connections — and candlelight. Experience suggests that it’s easier not to pack electronic devices in the first place than to place limits on their use once they’re in the tent or on the trail with you. That is, until the batteries run out. Then they’re simply dead weight.

My friend and her daughter are planning another trip later this summer. They’ve agreed to turn off their phones while they’re driving, to check email and Facebook only once a day, and to leave their digital distractions behind at least one day.

Summer is short enough here in New England that it's a shame to spend too much of it in the virtual world.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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