The modern family’s guide to taking a day off from tech
A mom (and IT pro) shares tips on how to effectively unplug, from staying off phones during dinner to planning screen-free days.
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One day when my kids were still small, we turned on the TV, expecting to enjoy one of their favorite shows on Nickelodeon. Instead, we found ourselves staring at a message: It was a “screen-free day,” there would be no shows, and the message recommended going outside to play. Nice. Except it was cold and raining that day. I knew the reasoning behind it, but I wished they’d picked a sunny day.
I’ve worked in the information technology industry for more than 20 years. One of my favorite sayings is “When in doubt, reboot it out.” Which means if you’re having a tech-related issue, turning something off and on again usually provides a quick fix. The Unplug Collaborative has a similar saying. Since 2009, it’s been promoting a Global (formerly National) Day of Unplugging. This year, the event takes place from sundown on Friday to sundown Saturday, March 3 and 4.
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you,” according to the Anne Lamott quote on their website. Taking technology breaks can help us appreciate the good parts about it, and develop healthier tech habits along the way.
Living in 2023, it can feel daunting for families to take a day completely offline. What if something happens at work? What if there’s an emergency? How can I get to the park if I don’t have access to an app like Google Maps? But planning a digital detox day for the whole family can lead to lasting memories as you stumble through a screen-free day.
What’s a digital detox?
A digital detox can be anything from staying off social media in the evenings, or skipping gaming or streaming services on the weekend, to going an entire day completely tech-free.
What are the benefits of a digital detox?
The benefits of taking a tech break are well reported. A study review in 2021 showed improvements in self-regulation and attention control after a two-week digital detox. That same study showed improvements in sleep, well-being, general life satisfaction, and lower anxiety and depression levels. It’s important to note, though, that the study also showed an increase in boredom during the detox. No shocker there.
But you don’t need a two-week detox to benefit. You can start small, try a screen-free bedtime routine, or take the whole day off. No matter what you choose, here are a few things to consider.
How to plan a family digital detox
First, decide on the day. If you can’t join the global community and unplug on March 3, pick a date that will work with your family and schedule, and maybe check the weather forecast too.
Write down some screen-free activities—on paper. Sit down and brainstorm about what you want to do together. Ask each family member to write down some ideas on small pieces of paper, and put them in a jar or bowl. Need some suggestions? The Unplug Collaborative has several ideas grouped by age.
On your screen-free day, pick out an idea from the jar. Everyone can pull out one of the activities from the jar at random. This will be especially helpful when the kids start saying “I’m bored!” For the more plan-intensive ideas, like visiting the local museum, use pen and paper to make the schedule. Think through printing out maps and directions beforehand, though, because once the screens go away, you can’t use an app like Google Maps.
How to stay connected while you’re disconnected
Put email and texts in out-of-office mode or driving mode. This will send an automatic response to anyone who tries to email you. Some texting apps or phone settings also have out-of-office reply settings. These are generally found under driving mode settings, since many services want you to send these auto responses when you are driving.
Establish an emergency contact. Let the contact know you’re taking a family day off-screens and tell them how to reach you if needed. There are a few ways you can do this. For example, allow them to “Drop In” to any Alexa-enabled devices in your home. Do you still have a landline? Make sure they have your number. If not, consider keeping one device turned on, but put it in “Do Not Disturb” mode. You can set the mode to allow a specific contact to get through, or anyone who calls multiple times within a short window of time.
Disable the Wi-Fi in your home, but keep your smart-home devices working. You can simply unplug your wireless router, or, if you’re more technically savvy, you can disable service to specific devices in your home. This allows devices like your thermostat and security cameras to work while the rest of your devices stay offline.
Put all connected devices, including smartwatches, in airplane mode. That way, you can detox from these notifications too. If your smartwatch has its own service or is Wi-Fi connected on its own, you may just want to go without the watch for the day.
Start the day fresh, and turn off your phone alarms too. Many people check their phones as soon as they wake up, especially if the phone serves as an alarm clock. If you’re taking a day off screens, use an old-fashioned alarm clock to wake up instead of using your phone, and remove your phone from the bedroom so you don’t reach for it first thing in the morning.
At the end of the day, talk about how it went.
How often did you think about your phone or a particular app? Did you realize anything about your daily habits that you want to change? Are there apps that you had a hard time putting down?
Analyzing your day can help you make decisions about things that you could change. You might decide to delete an app, remove yourself from certain group chats, or review that list of notifications and remove the ones that throw off your productivity during the day.
While we live in a tech-driven world, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, understanding how we utilize the technology in our lives is important. Stepping outside of our routine once in a while can help us figure out ways to use technology as a tool for connection—not a distraction. Maybe keep the weather app, though.