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Who’s Up for a Digital Detox?

Get Off the Grid and On the Grass

Writing this sentence took all day. Instead of clacking away with singular purpose, I interrupted myself incessantly to also send nineteen emails, post to Facebook, and update my Twitter, LinkedIn, and two Instagram accounts. The one goal was to finish this piece, yet digital distractions won my attention. Funny, it’s a story on digital detox. How meta – and ironic.

Everyone I know, minus those few who’ve downshifted to dumb phones, is battling with some form of iPhone imbalance or digital dependency. In my house, the affliction seeped under the skin of each inhabitant, and, in my wife’s case, under her very pillow. Even that one device-free sanctuary, the dinner table, was occasionally being threatened by must-see memes and lemme-just-check-one-things until we put a firmer foot down. In a rare act of unilateral parental decree, I recently declared a new house policy like martial law: Here ye, here ye, beginning immediately, the last weekend of every month – from Friday after school until Monday sun-up – shall henceforth be a time of digital detox.

The kids were addicted. All five. They were absent, ungrateful, and entitled. And although they went kicking and screaming into that first day, the energy shifted almost instantaneously. By Sunday, we’d glued and painted model cars, rolled out board games, conquered bins of LEGOs, scrubbed the house, held an emotional family meeting, and assembled two-thirds of a thousand-piece puzzle. Best of all, we connected, cleared the air, and resumed our love affair with certain analog essentials: books, records, photo albums, newspapers, journals, crayons, conversations, lawn sports, and family strolls.

Nature isn’t loud, especially compared to man-made life. Sometimes, you have to get quiet to hear it. Whether it’s YouTube, Wii, or Snapchat, whatever your fill-in-the-blank distraction du jour, that incessant pinging is loud enough to drown out the quiet hum of your imagination engine. If you’ve ever taken a decent yoga class, you’re familiar with that moment of pause after an inhale, but before the exhale. In that space between breaths, the yogis tell us, there is bliss. But who’s got time for that? The digital detox, we learned, is akin to the fireman’s jaws of life. Trapped inside a busy-bee Google Fiber quagmire of our own making, the detox freed us.

Interestingly, when we plugged back in, the world wasn’t piled up outside our inbox like laundry after a beach weekend. If anything, the gigabyte tsunami actually receded a little. Instead of slews of texts, there were but a few. Feed the machine and it feeds you right back. Cut it off, however, and the torrent slows in both directions. By yanking out the cord for that last weekend, we’d unintentionally recalibrated the start to our next month. The best way to manage the unceasing tide, we discovered, was not to surf more waves, but to now and again get out of the water altogether.

These notions are new to my family, and maybe yours too, but they’re not new. Two books, both written in 2010, presaged our conundrum and attempted to unpack its nuances. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, is a deep dive into the cognitive implications of digitalia. Having a harder time than ever keeping a thought-train on track? You’re not alone. Carr goes back to the invention of writing and examines how “technology” disrupted the oral tradition. He cites plenty of academic research addressing how hyper-connectivity is not only shortening our attention spans, but also rewiring the neurological pathways in our brains. “The neural circuits devoted to scanning, skimming, and multi-tasking are expanding and strengthening, while those used for reading and thinking deeply, with sustained concentration, are weakening or eroding,” writes Carr.

If Carr’s book represents a compelling caveat against digital distraction, William Powers’s book is the how-to guide for what to do about it. Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age is a simple call to action: To thrive in a connected world, we’ve got to master the art of disconnecting. Writes Powers, “This book is about a yearning and a need. It’s about finding a quiet, spacious place where the mind can wander free. We all know what that place feels like, and we used to know how to get there. But lately we’re having trouble finding it.”

The final chapter of Hamlet’s Blackberry is titled, “Disconnectopia: The Internet Sabbath.” The author’s family, strung-out on external stimuli, took a 48-hour break from all connected screens. Within six months, the author’s home life was transformed. “On the weekends, the house is a kind of island away from the madness, our disconnectopia… Though digital devices are meant to impose order on our lives, when you remove them, a more natural kind of order returns.”

Our seven-some is made up of two grown-ups, a high schooler, two middle schoolers, an elementary schooler, and a preschooler. Instituting the digital detox on that Friday afternoon, cold turkey as we did, led to a cartoons-backlash and a predictable  Instajones by Friday evening, but by Saturday, whatever social currency we’d all held in followers, likes, and nowness was exchanged for assets immeasurably more valuable: presence, play, and imagination.

It didn’t take long for us to veer back into the slipstream come Monday, though. We’ve since tried a no-video-games-on-weekdays policy, and some friends extend that to YouTube as well. Others recommend giving kids real alarm clocks and keeping a charging station downstairs so there are no phones up in the bedrooms after hours. Lately, we’re test-driving a parental control app called OurPact that lets us block kids’ iOS devices like a Cold War signal jammer. Needless to say, we’re still fine-tuning the rights and privileges of our Family Connectstitution. 

In the end, the exact letter of our Internet law is less important than the spirit of it: Get off the grid and onto the grass, the playground, and the Scrabble board. Now we know. My hope is that this near-universal, digitally-reinforced obsession with FOMO (fear of missing out) will dissipate as leisure, focus, and family connection become benchmarks of personal success. It’s time for the tyranny of the multi-tasker to yield – at least some of the time – to the cultural capital of being all-in on the moment/human/thought right in front of you.

Jason Tesauro is the father of five children, author of three books, and recipient of two national writing awards. Along with co-authoring The Modern Gentleman series, Tesauro serves as chief sommelier for Barboursville Vineyards and contributes lifestyle journalism to The New York Times, Esquire, Men’s Journal, and others. His latest feature for Travel+Leisure was selected for Best Food Writing 2016. Look for him spreading the gospel of Virginia bounty and refined cool at
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