This year, I decided to try and tear myself away from all things digital and to try to coax my family to do the same.
The most glaring problem I’ve encountered this year was how distracted we all were by things flashing across screens. From home to work to planes and trains, and even the grocery store, everyone you see is hunched over some mobile device with earbuds in their ears. I was finding it hard to communicate with people because no one would look up at me, and I wasn’t entirely sure that if they looked up, they would be able to hear what I said.
My husband and I would sit at home, in complete silence with only the air between us, as he scrolled through his phone and I scrolled through mine, with the TV humming in the background. Talk about quality time.
We were spending hours this way: glued to our phones, with our kids watching Disney Junior or Sprout — our whole family vying for screen time instead of paying any attention to one another.
In all my self-absorption and desire to feel informed, efficient and “plugged in,” my family was quickly losing power. In fact, our family life was stalled on the side of the road. And not only because I was engaging in this behavior, but because my husband was as well, and our kids noticed it in a big way.
Almost every time I picked up my phone — whether to check email, look up a recipe or listen to a voicemail — my kids would misbehave. You could set your watch to it. It was as if they sensed my attention floating out of the room. As a result, there was crayon on the walls, toilet paper spanning the length of the hallway and toys all over the living room floor — the kind of general mayhem that ensues when kids are left alone. Except everyone was inside.
It was weird, and I hated it.
We were present, but not present — home, but not home. And it had to stop.
The thought of seeing my kids just a little taller, wandering around like zombies, never actually interacting with other human beings, made me sad. The thought of them never really hearing the birds chirp or watching the clouds roll by made me sick to my stomach. The thought that their memories of me would consist solely of their mother looking down at a phone was something I could not allow to happen.
I did what any mom would do if she sensed danger was approaching her family — exactly what I would have done if I saw my daughter leaning over the deep end of the pool or my son reaching for a hot pan — I stepped in. I pulled the plug on all the digital stuff. I pulled the plug on the phones, the laptops and even on the TV.
I was mentally lost, with nothing to occupy my hands or mind — or so I thought. I really felt I was going to go nuts. It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
I’ve actually winced in pain when forced to power down my phone, not answer the Pavlovian bell notifying me of an incoming email. What if it’s something for work? What if I miss it? That wasn’t the only thing that hurt. Turning off the TV was incredibly hard, even though I’d spend most nights with it on just for the noise. Remember that Bruce Springsteen song, “57 Channels (and Nothing On)”? Try that with 257 channels.
Something really unexpected happened: I started to turn back to my family, and I noticed that so much was wrong with the way we were raising our family.
I was brought up during a time when we barely had these conveniences — our phones had wires, our appliances had plugs and there was no way for anyone to reach me if I wasn’t at home. Now, I know what people will say about that: how life’s safer and far more convenient now. Hell, you can order and pay for a pizza by talking into your car and have it arrive just as you pull into your driveway. That’s some Jetsons-type stuff. That’s great, but I could see what it was doing to our family.>
We were dragging ourselves out of bed in the morning after staying up too late watching TV, stumbling to the freezer to find convenience meals — hello, Jimmy Dean! — to push the kids onto a bus, so we could get back to staring at our screens all day long, working or not. The kids got home and plopped down in front of the TV, which led to very little face-to-face interaction.
In the time it took me to realize that we were doing everything wrong, I found that we were eating the wrong foods, spending very little time outside and not making enough happy memories.
Everything we did was in the name of convenience. Convenient for what? Convenient to whom? As far as I could see, my entire family was suffering.
What I’ve learned this year is, simply stated, that my phone didn’t make me more efficient, more effective, more likable, more informed or any better of a parent or person. It actually made me worse at all of them. I was tripping over myself to get to my devices all the time. I found that instead of making my life easier, the phones, the laptops, the iPads seemed to make life harder and more unpleasant.
After I recovered from the initial shock of losing constant access to my devices, a few surprising things started happening. I actually started talking to people out loud and in person. What a relief it was to hear them laugh and see them smile, to feel their true reactions to what I was saying. Both my husband and I and our kids have made new friends through school and activities. Instead of the usual race-in-race-out to hurry back to wasting our time, we’ve stayed places and lingered longer, which has made our experiences much more meaningful.
I’ve also started tossing away the prepackaged meals in favor of cooking — and freezing enough to eat later on. We’re going outside more. No more “It’s too cold,” “After this show” or “Just as soon as I’m finished with this work.” We do crafts together, read stories at night and talk as a family. Overall, I think we’re living in a more fulfilling way by keeping ourselves unplugged.
After all is said and done, I still have trouble putting down my phone. I still have trouble deciding whether preparing dinner early or rushing straight for the computer in the morning is the bigger priority. My hand still instinctively goes for the remote right after my kids’ bedtime. I still wonder whether or not I’m missing something by living this way.
But I find I’ve missed more of my kids’ lives by staying plugged in all the time.
And that’s enough to keep me back in the real world for one more day.