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Technology Detox: Does Your Family Need One?

If you're doing this while making dinner, you might have a problem.

Much of what I do professionally requires me to be plugged in. And I’ve found that such a condition is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I’ve made countless wonderful contacts and am always up to speed on the latest and greatest. But on the other hand, being plugged into work sometimes means I’m not plugged into my family. And that’s not cool.

I’m certainly not the worst offender out there, but I was still concerned enough about the situation to make the following New Year’s Resolution: to stop using my smartphone like a dumb-dumb. For me that means checking it at the door the moment I get home from work. So far, I’ve been pretty good, and I’m glad. Because the last thing I want is for my family to turn in to one of those families who are never together, even when everyone in it is sitting around the same table.

That very thing, it turns out, is happening to more and more of us. So often, in fact, that some families are starting to do something about it.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal published an interesting piece about families who are undergoing a tech detox, if you will. Think of it like Celebrity Rehab. Only there aren’t any celebrities, just an ordinary family. And there’s no drugs, just a bunch of wireless devices. Oh. And no cameras. So maybe it’s not like Celebrity Rehab, but that’s beside the point.

The point is, however, that many families are worried enough about their situation to go to drastic lengths to try to alter it. Take Diane Broadnax and her family, for example. The 50-year-old clinical trial researcher from Mount Airy, Md. realized that she was fed up with her family members’ fixation on all things electronic. Anika, her 4 year-old, would watch “Dora the Explorer” on a laptop while Jasmine, 12, would be at another computer playing with her virtual pets. It didn’t bother her husband, Lonnie, one bit. He was too busy watching sci-fi DVDs in his office to notice. All of which left Diane alone to make dinner. While continuously checking her email.

“Days were going by and we weren’t talking,” Ms. Broadnax said of the situation.

So this past November, she announced to her family that they would all forgo their virtual entertainment for one week. That first night was an awkward one around the dinner table. Daughter Jasmine “didn’t know what to say,” and Lonnie told WSJ, “We all thought, ‘We are sitting at the table like we’re supposed to, but now what do we do?’ ”

The Broadnaxes are not alone. In an age where we have never been more connected, many are finding that their families are anything but. Marriage and family therapist Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, from Mount Kisco, N.Y., sees it all the time. “Technology should be on the list of the top reasons why people divorce, along with money, sex and parenting… There has to be some time in the week when you are all together and you shut off the technology.”

Susan Maushart agrees. She recently wrote a book entitled “The Winter of Our Disconnect” which will be released a week from tomorrow. It describes the experience she shared with her three teenagers when they quit high tech cold turkey for six months in 2009. To coerce her children to participate, she offered to share her book proceeds with them. The author claims that the effort was well worth it, and that as a result of it, they now appreciate each other more than ever.

And that’s good. Because I have a feeling that many families will find out in the not-so-distant future that all the gains which technology brought them will have ultimately come at a heavy price — one ultimately paid by their family and the damaged relationships therein.

Does your family need a tech detox? If so, check out these helpful tips provided to the WSJ by families who have undergone such a cleansing:

Give your family advance warning. They need time to prepare mentally.

Clarify your goal: Be careful not to swap technology use for some other isolating activity.

Wean yourself off gadgets gradually. Maybe a week—or even just one day—is too long to go unconnected at first.

Start when your kids are young. Rob and Lauren Webster tried a tech fast last year after realizing how often they plopped their kids, ages 1 and 2, in front of cartoons to keep them quiet. “I really don’t want to screw up my kids,” says Mr. Webster, 39, director of video production at a church in Leawood, Kan. When they unplugged and took the children to the park, “we found ourselves constantly engaged with our kids and with each other,” he says.

Be clear on the rules. Will calls and emails for work be allowed? What about going online for homework? What are the consequences for cheating?

Let technology help you disconnect. Use Facebook, Twitter or email to tell friends and family that you will be offline. Have emails sent to your inbox in batches.

Make the bedroom a media-free zone.

When the cleanse is done, learn to avoid the time-suck of letting one Internet search lead to another and another. You can waste hours.

Allow only one screen at a time. Give the TV, for example, your full attention, rather than also looking at your computer and iPhone.

Image: stock.xchnge

John Cave Osborne’s personal blog.
John Cave Osborne’s book website.

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