The real goal of unplugging

By Anne Collier

I love the parenthetical in the headline of “Five Ways to Break Your Kids’ Screen Addiction (and Yours, Too),” by Yahoo family tech columnist Dan Tynan. Because – if there’s such a thing as screen addiction and it’s not just something fashionable to (anxiously) joke about – what we model for our kids in our own use of phone and other screens has huge influence on them. [You’ve probably seen videos of toddlers walking around holding pretend cellphones up to their ears. A friend in Australia recently sent me adorable footage of her 3-year-old in a restaurant high chair opening up the menu and tapping away on it just as if it were a laptop and he was mommy or daddy working at home.]

Beyond the part about mindful modeling, I like the rest of Dan’s column too. It’s a funny, candid account of how he, his wife and teenage son and daughter did on their “annual ‘unplugging’ trip to the Great Smoky Mountains,” and you should read it to see how this year’s went. Besides how fun Dan’s column is to read, a big reason why I’m telling you about it is the positive, respectful approach he has to the tech part of parenting – as respectful of kids as parents. For example, in his “5 ways” – some of which you’ve heard before – he writes: “I think kids are more likely to follow the rules if they have a say in creating them, and are also more likely to become responsible adults.” I think so too. Another: “Measuring screen time alone is missing the point” (because by now we know that there are all kinds of screen time and they have different value in different contexts, right?).

Digital detox only Step 1

I’ll let you read the rest yourself, but first a word about unplugging. I think that, actually, digital detoxes, sabbaths and shabbats are fine. A good cleanse is great, but it’s only Step 1. Depending on whoever’s doing the cleanse and where s/he is, developmentally, it may be important to do Step 1 – maybe several times, once a year or once a week – but there’s little point in doing it if we leave out the most important part: reflecting on the experience and its impact (as 18-year-old filmmaker Eoin Corbett and his friends did). We might also choose to go right to Step 2 – leapfrog over Step 1 entirely – if we want to get to the real goal, which goes beyond tech-in-moderation, let alone tech avoidance (which can have major impact on kids’ social development these days and would need a whole lot more reflection and communication). Step 2 is mindful, literate use of our very social digital media: what happens as we develop the blended technical, social-emotional and media literacy that protects and enables competent navigation (see this).

Is the point to run away from something or run toward something, such as a realization, acceptance and skillful navigation of what is? Do we want to model for our children denial or fear of the world around them (including the digital aspects) or resilience and competence in living in it? Avoidance of ever getting in the water isn’t how people learn to swim, right? And learning how to swim is protective, as well as fun and great exercise. Learning how to use technology thoughtfully and competently – armed with digital, media and social-emotional literacy – is protective too. It develops the cognitive filter that we’re all born with and that usually improves with use and protects for a lifetime.

Presence in digital spaces too

The goal to which these steps get us closer is presence – not only with the people in the physical space around us but also with the people on our screens. Presence was the goal even before the digital age, only now more needed than ever, on screen and off screen. Because sometimes there are people in the same conversation or collaboration who are in the room as well as on a teleconference or tablet screen. Are the needs of the people present but not in the room being considered, and how does a child develop that consideration without practice?

But of course presence is more than consideration of all participants. It’s as much about presence in this moment as presence of mind, whether devices are in use or not. Learning how to be present, for ourselves and others, in this moment, in our collective mental space (sometimes called a conversation), whether digital or physical – really just how to be in a networked world – is the goal. Our busy world suggests all the time that this is hard, but it doesn’t have to be. Intention – keeping the goal in mind – and practice (as with daily meditation or exercise or nutritious eating) are huge helps in getting us there.

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