“Mama…Mama?” My son sat beside me on the couch, his favorite book in hand. Even though he was right in front of me, I didn’t hear him.
Since the chaos of the presidential election, I’d found myself rolling down the mountain in an avalanche of news, allowing myself to be grabbed by sensational headlines and snarky comment threads. I had the illusion that, the more informed I became, the more I’d be able to control outcomes. But the only outcome I created was a family that that spent more time with their digital devices than with one another. (Here’s more on learning to be calm in times of turmoil.)
In the throes of my own short-attention span, screen-staring behavior, I hadn’t noticed that my husband was beginning to follow in my footsteps. And because we were lenient with our own screen time, we became more lenient with our son’s. Two cartoons a day turned into four. iPad time became an acceptable alternative to playing quietly. And when he was content to play on the floor with his toys, it was often alone.
One evening, after putting my son to bed, I sat quietly on the sofa in a repose that was usually followed by a scroll through social media platforms for anything new, better, worse, crazy, amazing. And I just took a deep breath instead. “This has got to change,” I said. I’d had enough, and I knew I had to clean up the mess I made for my entire family. And so, we went on a digital detox.
With my family on board, we committed to one full week of pulling the cord and disconnecting from the digital world as much as possible. Of course, as a writer, I’m reliant on my computer, and my husband depends on his in equal measure. But we knew there were ways around this. And also wanted to replace our screen time with family time, finding new ways for us to plug back into each other. (Here are more ways to get kids and adults off their phones.)
So we created a master plan: a 4-step guide to help us unplug from our addiction, and reconnect with one another. Here’s how:
Each time you look at your phone, those temping little icons are going to bat their lashes at you. Do yourself a favor and delete all your social media apps and games. And if you’re a newshound like me, delete your news app. Remember, it’s only seven days, and you can evaluate whether you really need Brick Breaker back on your phone after some healthy perspective.
If you need to use your devices for work purposes, take a tip from my husband and use a social media blocker like Freedom, which allows you to block your use of the internet and specific websites and apps during set times, or Self Control, which is free, and specific to Mac.
If you’re the sort the flips through your phone while waiting in line at the grocery store, buy a new book. (Here some great ways that reading is good for you.) I filled my idle time with Rachel O’Meara’s Pause: Harnessing the Life Changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break. I also brushed up on breathing technique like these simple ones for yoga beginners.
Set yourself up for success by setting ground rules and reviewing them with your family. We kept our rules posted on the refrigerator as a reminder, along with words of inspiration to touch on in moments of doubt. We talked about all the rules with our son beforehand, as well as why we were implementing them.
Here are our rules (you can modify as needed):
1. No interacting with digital content, including the internet, social media apps, news apps, and games outside of necessary work.
2. No TV or movies. This might be hardest for kids who are used to cartoon time, but getting them excited about family time will help. My son would choose a day of bowling over cartoons any day.
3. Delete all apps and games.
4. No devices until 9AM. Let yourself start the day in peace, without inundating yourself with mental chatter and overstimulation from the online vortex. If you need a screen for work, don’t even touch it until 9:00AM, or when your workday begins.
5. No devices after 6PM. Similarly, when the workday is done, so is your screen time. Turn your computer off entirely and put your phone in an out-of-the-way place.
Now that the rules are out of the way, let’s get to some fun! With your new boundaries in place, you’re going to quickly see just how much time you devote to your addiction. And it’s important to replace that time with something else more satisfying for the whole family.
We replaced our morning news review to fifteen minutes of family yoga and meditation. Pre-dinner hours previously spent in Facebook comment threads turned into daily outings to the local park. This takes some planning: schedule your family time like you would your work commitments.
My husband and son decided to bake bread together two afternoons in the week (bonding time that has thankfully stuck!). We chose a local museum for a Saturday outing and spent lots of time playing my son’s favorite board games.
Be mindful that you plan things that include the whole family, and allow you to have conversation, take a deep breath, have fun, or simply be in one another’s company. When my son went to bed, my husband and I opted to have a glass of wine on the patio to talk about our hopes for the future—something we realized we’ve neglected to do for some time.
(Get kitchen meditations and inspired recipes from Finding Yourself In The Kitchen, available now from the Women’s Health Boutique.)
Readjust your five senses by exposing yourself to some natural beauty at least once during the week. (It’s really good for you—here are 8 amazing ways nature can heal you.) You can plan a solo hike in solitude, or day at the beach with the whole gang. Sitting in a quiet city garden or a verdant backyard counts, so long as you have no distractions. Be open to having nothing to do, no one to talk to, nothing to say. Take in the colors, sounds, the way the air feels and smells that surround.
We spend so much time hunched over, shoulders tense, with a short range of vision between us and our devices. Spending quiet time in observation of nature will help to open your senses again, and remind you to breathe deep, stand tall, and be at peace.
At the end of my family’s one-week digital detox we set new rules. I appreciate that I can connect with friends and family on social media, but I have more clarity around what’s productive, and what’s harmful. We’ve incorporated some of our experimental family activities into ongoing events.
We still don’t open a computer or look at a device before 9AM and I do yoga with my son each morning. And instead of turning the TV on after school, I read books with my son. (Here are some of the best gardening books for kids you can snag on Amazon.)
So now, when he says, “Mama, will you read this book?” I can be aware enough to look him in the eye and say yes.