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Unplugged: 7 Tips for Tech-Free Family Living

Ever feel like you just can’t unplug? Or that everyone around you seems to be lost in a zombieland of digital dependence?

It’s not surprising, considering nearly half of American adults now own smart phones and that digital tablet ownership has doubled over the past year — thank you iPad!

But what impact is all this so-called “smart” technology having on our families, our relationships? Media experts tell people to unplug, to set a better example for their kids, or to just take a moment to enjoy the world around them.

But … how?

Pretty much every time I’m out and about with my daughter, I see parents with their eyes glued to their phones, their necks bent in that tell-tale sign of mobile stupor, and I think: They must be texting with the president. Because what else could possibly be so important that they completely ignore their kids for an hour straight?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for inflicting boredom on the kids, making them find their own fun without parental involvement, and I’m fully aware that sometimes the only way a parent can actually hang out with kids is to stay connected somehow to work just in case.

But I’m also pretty sure that whatever seems so pressing on the mobile device at the moment probably really isn’t.

Put the phone away. Walk away from the computer. It should be as easy as it sounds.

So why can’t we?

I’ve been guilty of only half-listening to my daughter or wife while scrolling through the email messages on my phone during busy days. I write for a bunch of different Web sites, maintain my own monstrosity of a blog, am really involved with the PTA at my daughter’s school, and sometimes life intervenes and I have to stay in touch with a spouse or family member or friend, so I know the pull of the Internet is always there, always calling.

But I’m also aware of just how trivial most of the matters are and often think: Do I need to engage in some petty blog spat, either by reading comments or making my own, when here I am outside, playing with my child? Of course I don’t. Is whatever some distant friend on Facebook posts worthy of my full attention right now? Of course not.

I almost get depressed when I see parents and kids at the playground, each of them tapped into an iPhone. Why even bother going to the park at all, I wonder? At a kid’s baseball game a few weeks ago, I saw one mom cheering on her kid, who was up to bat, while looking at her phone the whole time. She literally did not take her eyes off the phone until her kid reached first base, and she had to do a double take to find him. Now, she may have been trying to find secret nuclear codes to prevent some crazy flare up in the middle east at that. very. moment. and needed to concentrate her attention for the good of everyone, but I doubt it. I bet she could have spared 10 seconds to actually watch her kid.

In reality, I sometimes check my phone while I’m out more than I probably should as well. I sometimes struggle with over-connectivity. But I’m aware of how bad it is for everything from relationships to simply the quality of the soul. Is that message more important than, say, a beautiful sunset? A glimpse of the ocean? Your kid’s smile?

Over the past year, I’ve reined myself in, but I still fear we’ve reached a sort of tipping point when all these connections to phones and computers will start to drastically harm the connections between ourselves. On date nights with my wife, for instance, we can’t go into a restaurant without finding two young people sitting at a table with iPhones literally propped up between them like a barrier. Is this the dating world my daughter will soon enter? Is this the sort of conversation I want to have with my wife?

To unplug and reconnect with each other, our family is always re-evaluating how we deal with personal media, but we have some hard and fast rules when it comes to being plugged in. I’d love to hear your advice for unplugging, too.


  • No toys at the table 1 of 7
    No toys at the table
    This is No. 1 and almost sacred. You are not Jack Bauer. Even the busiest working parent can take 15 minutes from the day for an electronics-free dinner. I always hear: "But my boss is expecting my email!" Your boss has no flipping idea when you even GOT the first one you so desperately need to reply to. It can likely wait 5 more minutes. Of course, look, there are days when you just have to get stuff done, so excuse yourself from the table to file that TPS Report.
  • No toys at the park 2 of 7
    No toys at the park
    The playground is for exercise and personal freedom, not Angry Birds. Put that crap away. Both of you.
  • Toys are not parents 3 of 7
    Toys are not parents
    If you're out to a nice dinner or a simple taco lunch with the kids or a group of kids — when I see this scenario the most — don't hand over a phone or iPad so you can eat or chat with a friend in peace. As difficult as it is to actually engage these little monkeys for 15 minutes, go for it.
  • Un-app thyself 4 of 7
    Un-app thyself
    I took Facebook mobile apps off my phone completely, having been guilty of checking mindless status updates while doing everything from waiting in the checkout line to waiting in the doctor's office. Do you need to be so tapped in to the "OMG. I just had the best lunch ever! Ugh, burrito baby!" crowd? It can
    probably wait.
  • Create email time 5 of 7
    Create email time
    I wake up super early to get some work done and try to squeeze in most of my correspondence during this time, so I can have the rest of the day to hang with my daughter. In the evening, after she's in bed, I can turn the computer back on and get back to work. This scheduling of electronics works for me and my schedule but I bet a lot of people could plan a time during the day when they are electronics-free — whether to hang with the kids or just read a book.
  • Play video games! 6 of 7
    Play video games!
    Huh? This may seem counter-intuitive, considering this whole thing is about unplugging, but there are a few stupid video games my daughter and I enjoy and playing them together can be a real treat for both of us. The key word is: together. On the weekends, she and I can play "Where's My Water" or "Angry Birds" together for a few minutes, and then the phone goes away. I don't want her connected all the time, but it seems impossible to turn her into a Luddite.
  • Leave it at home 7 of 7
    Leave it at home
    If you're going to be running short errands around the neighborhood and you feel like the phone offers too big of a suck away from the family, just leave that crap at home. Put it on a shelf. I do this now when shopping or going to the park. Whatever messages are waiting for me when I get back can continue to do just that: wait.

Mike Adamick writes at Cry It Out!

Previously

Win a Free Mattress to End the Family Sleep Wars!

The Best Dads in Ads Commercial Ever

Main photo: Common Sense Media

All others: Morguefile

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