If you’re like most people, you have a hard time imagining life without your smartphone. They’ve become a ubiquitous presence in our hands and in our lives—so much so that they may become intrusive and keep us from connecting with our family, friends and co-workers in meaningful, authentic ways.
The start of the new year is a perfect time to break the habit and try a “digital detox”—taking a deliberate break from our phones, tablets and other electronic devices to reconnect with our children, our partners and ourselves. Social psychologist and parenting expert Susan Newman, Ph.D., and social media expert and business coach Tiffany Han share their tips for unplugging.
Why Do a Digital Detox?
For starters, untethering ourselves from our electronics and taking a timeout from social media can teach us to be more present and focused in our own lives. “A lot of times, we’re not very good at being present because our brains are working so fast and we’re so used to the constant distraction,” says Han. “I think we don’t even recognize that our normal way of living is that there’s always a screen between us and whatever it is that we’re doing.”
Our own device use sends a powerful message to our children. “First of all, they’re seeing that it’s OK to be on the device constantly,” says Newman. A study from Northwestern University found that parents who are heavy users of screen media are more likely to raise children who are heavy users of screen media. Parents who are light users, likewise, raise light users of screen media.
Newman adds: “It’s clear that as a parent, you are your child’s role model, in all areas. Specifically in this area, ‘If it’s OK for Mommy, it’s OK for me.’”
In addition, when we’re focusing on our devices, we’re not focusing on our kids. In a small study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2014, researchers observed families eating together in restaurants. Most of the parents spent much of the meal absorbed by their cell phones, and their children often behaved poorly, seemingly in an effort to get their attention.
Memories are made from activities and funny misadventures families experience together, says Newman. She recently revised and reissued her book Little Things Long Remembered, a compendium of simple ideas for connecting with your kids. She says the book is “an antidote to all these devices. It’s my attempt to get parents to go back to basics.”
An afternoon-, day- or weekend-long detox is a perfect opportunity to make some of those memories by spending uninterrupted, undistracted time with your kids. “If you have children, it builds a much stronger bond with them,” Newman says. “It makes your children feel secure. It makes them feel part of the family. They’ll look back and say, ‘My parents were fabulous. They did all these fun things with us,’ even if it’s going out for a walk wearing rubber boots after a rainstorm.”
How to Do the Detox
Before instituting a family-wide detox, you might try one for yourself. Both Newman and Han agree that the length of a detox depends on how much you use your devices. If you’re more “plugged in,” start small. “You could start with doing two or three hours in an afternoon,” Newman says. “Even if it’s something like cleaning the garage, leave the device off and away from you, like in the kitchen. Work yourself up so that it’s an hour, then two hours, then three hours, until eventually you’re brave enough to turn it off the whole day.”
If you’re not a constant phone-checker and don’t look at social media very often, Han says, a weekend would be a doable detox. If you receive work e-mails on weekends that you’re expected to respond to, you could use your laptop or home computer on a limited basis, skipping any Twitter or Facebook checks.
For a family detox, make a plan ahead of time in order to limit groaning and prevent boredom. Han recommends the whole family write down activities they’d like to do during the detox—go for a hike, visit the zoo, play board games, bake cookies—and then put each suggestion into a bowl. Each family member takes turns picking an activity from the bowl. “Have it be a fun celebration time,” Han says. “That way it makes it more of a game. Recognize that it can be fun and that it’s not a punishment.”
Han also suggests implementing a regular family device-free time, such as every Sunday after dinner. “Everyone turns off their screens, there’s no TV and no computers,” she says. “That way, it’s not a matter of, ‘Well, she’s on hers. Why can’t I be on mine?’ Maybe you rotate every week and somebody gets to pick an activity.” Even a family movie night is OK, as long as phones are stowed elsewhere.
Simple Ways to Unplug Every Day
Want to feel more present on a regular basis? Han and Newman offer these tips:
• Make the dinner table a no-phone zone. Eat meals together as much as possible, without the TV turned on or any devices present. Enforce the rule in restaurants, too.
• Determine times each day that you’ll spend with your kids without checking your phone. Mealtime, bathtime and bedtime are great regular times to go device-free.
• Wait until after your child goes to bed to catch up on texts, e-mails and social media, and limit your time on social media. “At the end of the day, maybe you go on for 15 minutes,” says Han. “I find that when I do that, I’m able to catch myself up.”
• Leave your phone in your car or turned off in your pocket or purse during your children’s sporting events or music performances. If you want to take photos, snap a few with your phone, but wait until later to upload them to social media. “Children really know when you’re paying attention,” Newman says. “You’re definitely not in the moment if you’re taking pictures constantly and then sending them off on your Twitter feed or Instagram.”
• Keep devices—both yours and your children’s—out of bedrooms at night. If cell phones are regularly used as alarm clocks, replace them with the real thing. The pings and buzzing from incoming texts, e-mails and social media notifications can disrupt sleep, as can the blue light that emanates from digital devices.
• Turn off social media and e-mail notifications on your phone. “All of that is constantly pulling us out of whatever moment we’re in,” says Han. “People say, ‘But I want to know if someone likes my picture.’ You don’t actually need to know that. It’s not more important than what you’re doing with your kids.”