When Kim and I met for lunch we had so much catching up to do that I almost forgot why I had planned this get together with her.
“Don’t forget! You were going to ask me about our family’s ‘E-free’ days.”
“Oh my GOSH!” How could I have let that slip my mind? “Yes!!!”
Honestly, this conversation couldn’t have come at a better time. I had just finished reading a sobering article, Have Smartphones Destroyed A Generation? If you haven’t read it yet —spoiler alert! Kids who have grown up with a silver iPhone in their hand describe themselves as more lonely and distressed than any preceding generation.
Dr. Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has compiled enough evidence to make this bold statement:
“There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.”
Then she follows up with this zinger:
“If you were going to give advice for a happy adolescence based on this survey, it would be straightforward: Put down the phone, turn off the laptop, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen.”
How do you respond as a parent to that advice? We want our kids to be genuinely happy, but we also live in a society that functions more and more through smartphone devices. How can we help our kids embrace technology while maintaining the benefits of “real world” connectivity?
For Kim and her family it’s about restoring balance. They use frequent, mini vacations away from the digital world to keep them grounded. Follow along as she shares her ideas with me.
Feeling the need for a get-away?
PA: Alright Kim, fire away —give me the basics of these E-free days!
K: It’s pretty simple. We have E-free days about 2 or 3 times every month, usually on a Saturday. This is when we make a conscious choice to shut down all electronics –cellphones, tablets, video games and even the television.
We started our E-free days about 5 years ago in response to some concerns we had with our oldest daughter. For her, engaging in social media had become emotionally intense.
We noticed that whatever experiences she had online affected her mood to the nth degree offline. We decided it was worth stepping away from technology for a time to see what would happen.
As we’ve continued the tradition, our two younger kids actually look forward to the break from electronics. They may not express it exactly in those words (laughter) but they have come to appreciate that there are activities beyond video games and YouTube music channels that are extremely rewarding.
Discovering your passions
PA: What specific benefits do you consider a direct result of E-free days?
K: Our E-free days have given our kids the opportunity to discover their own interests —not just the ones handed to them through media sources. They’ve each come up with a small arsenal of activities they like to do on these special days.
It’s funny, our son generally likes to read, but he has this one book that is taking him forever to complete. That’s because he saves it especially for his E-free days. Then he has his Lego. Once he starts building, that’s easily a couple of hours.
For our middle daughter it’s a bit different. She is very busy during the week so for her a nap can be a very worthwhile activity. But even naps are better on an E-free day. Do you ever notice how your phone can rob you of true restfulness? One little YouTube search turns into an hour-long mind distraction?
An unexpected gift
PA: What kind of response have you had from the kids?
K: I thought you might ask me this. So I cheated and asked them yesterday. (laughter)
Our daughter says that she feels more relaxed and more creative during an E-free day. Our son, who as you know manages his days with high-functioning autism, says that he feels like his brain gets a rest. I can hardly think of a better gift for him than a day when he feels that his brain can slow down just a little bit.
We’ve been doing E-free days for at least five years now so it’s routine for us. No one really balks. I’d say it goes more the other way. We look forward to it as a family. It’s a relief not to be immersed in the electronics. It’s like we are on vacation but we are local.
Helping everyone set boundaries for tech use
PA: It sounds like this is a family event. Are parents included?
K: Oh yes! We are all in. Everything goes away. Mom and dad don’t use the computer, phones or TV either on E-free days. The exceptions are that we answer the phone when it rings and check our email if we are expecting a specific communication.
Part of the reason we initiated E-free days was because I was having a hard time separating work from family time. It’s so easy to let every text message, every email, every Facebook notification start to take over. I didn’t like what it was doing to our family, especially on the weekends.
Our E-free days are about everyone learning to set boundaries. We are not an anti-tech family. We just want our kids to grow up knowing that they are in control of how they use technology, not the other way around.
Looking forward with anticipation
PA: What advice would you give to parents who want to try this?
K: Have a plan and start small. You certainly don’t want to go cold turkey and send everyone into shock. If I look back, I’d have to say we started with a simple family games night.
Our kids were pretty young then so it was up to Mike and I to set the example by putting our devices away. From there work up to more extended periods by helping your kids come up with a list of activities they can do. At the start it’s going to take more hands on parenting. Look for activities in the community you can do together.
It’s also super important to consider why you are doing this. E-free days will not work if there is any undertone of it being a punishment or control method. For success to occur you need to frame E-free time as a gift. You want your kids to see it as something fun to look forward to.
The memories speak for themselves
PA: What if parents have older kids? Is it ever too late to start?
K: No, I don’t think it’s ever too late to start. But you may need to modify some of your expectations. Here, more than ever you’re going to need a plan! And for success with older kids, they are going to need to be a part of that plan. Explain why you have this idea and ask for their input. You may be surprised with what they come up with.
We started our E-free days when our oldest daughter was still at home. For her the break was not only challenging; it came with real separation anxiety. Asking her to disconnect from her online life, even for a day, was extremely difficult! But we persevered and worked hard to come up with alternative activities for her.
It was worth the effort. Now when she reminisces of her teenage years at home, her fondest memories often coincide with the fun things we did together on our E-free days. I think that speaks volumes.
My advice: don’t ever be afraid of your kids’ devices or their attachment to them.
Buoyed by Kim’s enthusiasm, I asked my family at dinner that night if they thought they could manage an entire day without electronic devices (hypothetically speaking of course). It surprised me that no one considered it that big a challenge. I was more skeptical.
Sure, we’ve unplugged for long periods of time before. Usually when we’re doing activities away from the home (which, according to Kim totally counts!). But what about consciously choosing not to depend on devices at home? Could my family really do it and be happy? Could yours? (Why do I feel a new survivor series in the making?)
Whether it’s a couple hours each day, or a day or two each month, extended breaks from tech devices could increase a child’s happiness and help a family maintain balance in the digital age. Looks like it’s time for me to start planning our next E-free staycation!
Building a community
Parents Aware is a forum for sharing concerns, ideas and successes. It’s our goal to support one another as we all work towards building a happy and healthy future for our kids. We hope that you continue to look to the community for ideas and support. Do you have an idea you would like to share? Contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Family life is at the top of Kim’s many passions. She loves to discover new and creative ways to deepen her relationship with her husband and three teenage children. Kim also practices as a licensed Financial Strategist. However, when Friday night rolls around you’ll find her salsa dancing with her sweetheart, supporting local bands or taking the lead behind the mic. Kim tries to see new challenges as opportunities for inspiration, educational growth and greater human connection. Her favourite thought: “When a woman rises up in glory, her energy is magnetic and her sense of possibility contagious.” ― Marianne Williamson, A Woman’s Worth
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