Take a tech holiday
Could you and your family give up smartphones, computers and TV for one day each week?
I recently mentioned to an Uber driver that I was thinking of trying a whole-house day off from tech.
At first he seemed impressed by my lofty goal. Then we started talking about our families — and our teen children — and the constant presence of screens, and all the stressors they bring with them. Taking a break sounded like a dream.
Then again, we couldn’t escape reality: I had summoned him to my door via my smartphone, and there, on the dash, sat his smartphone, faithfully guiding us to our destination.
“Well,” I said as I was getting out, “I think I’m going to try this idea of taking a break from screens.”
He looked at me across the backseat and chuckled.
“Good luck,” he said. Indeed.
Technology, and of course screens, are now present at virtually every moment of our lives, and it has become ever more difficult to untangle them from daily existence. U.S. government data shows that 43% of American adults live in a cellphone-only household, with no landline. Pew Research Center reports that 82% of smartphone users rarely or never turn their phones off.
But, for all our glassy-eyed dependence on tech, the idea of opting out of it, at least temporarily, is catching on.
“I do feel a shift,” says filmmaker and author Tiffany Shlain, whose book “24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week” was published in September. “People are ready for something different.”
Shlain, who advocates a weekly 24-hour, secular “tech shabbat,” has been following that practice for a decade, and says that as the level of tech involvement has “gotten crazy” over that time, the idea of taking a break from it seems a lot less crazy.
Sonoma State University psychology professor Mary Gomes, who has been assigning four-day tech fasts to her students for the past 10 years, sees that same trend, even among her digitally native students. “I’m getting more of a sense of enthusiasm from students,” Gomes says. “They’ll say things like, ‘Now I have an excuse to cut back.’ I think there are a lot of pressures for students online, and so they are starting to feel overloaded by technology.”
Shlain’s tech shabbat practice came about at a time when she felt overloaded personally, after losing her father and giving birth to her second child in close succession. “We decided to try it, and it felt so good,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is what I need.’ ”
Though she is not a particularly religious person, she liked the notion of tying the habit of weekly tech breaks to the Jewish tradition of shabbat, a weekly day of rest and contemplation. “It’s this thousand-year-old practice that has so much wisdom in it,” she says. “It’s about being present.” And, she points out, a prescribed day of rest is inherent in many religious traditions.
Shlain and her family (including two teen daughters) put away cellphones and shut down computers on Friday evening, then host a dinner for family and friends. Saturday is a day of rest: no chores or homework, and no screens, including TV. “To have a full day of no screens is the modern version of a day of rest in my mind,. And it has been the most incredible practice of my life. It’s one of the best things I have done as a person, and one of the best things I have done as a parent.”
Her family doesn’t reconnect to tech until Saturday evening, at which time Shlain says, “I’m really ready to get back online. So you get to appreciate technology in a whole new way.”
Shlain has a long-standing enthusiasm for tech; she founded the Webby Awards, which recognizes the best websites around the world, before launching her production company. “The early days of the web were about its ability to connect people and ideas from all over the world,” she says. “But what I didn’t foresee was how it would disconnect us from the people right in front of us, because everyone is always staring at a screen.”
One of the consequences of a tech fast for Gomes’ students, she says, is increased awareness of that disconnect. “They’re used to being lost in their own world when they’re out walking around,” says Gomes, “listening to whatever they’re listening to, and now suddenly they’re looking around, listening to the
A break from smartphones and other screens can free up time for things like family board game night.