In celebration of the fifth annual National Day of Unplugging (NDU) -- from sundown Friday, March 7 to sundown, Saturday, March 8 -- the nonprofit Reboot is asking individuals and families to reconnect with each other by putting down their smartphones, tablets and computers for 24 hours.
This week, Samantha Kurtzman-Counter, the President of The Mother Company, a mom-founded multi-media company guided by the mission to Help Parents Raise Good People, joins us to tell us about a struggle that many of us face.
One of the worst sources of discord in my family is our constant wrestling match with "screen time." The whining, the begging, the manipulating, the obsessive planning: I basically feel like my 7-year-old pretends to enjoy his extracurriculars but really spends the majority of his day counting the minutes until his next technological encounter.
He actually told me the other day that what he wants to do when he grows up is be "the guy who reviews video games on YouTube." So not even the guy who creates the video games, but the guy who stays home all day, sits on the couch and videotapes himself playing them. "Even if you never make a penny and end up living in our basement for the rest of your life?" I asked. "Yup!" (Well, at least I don't have to worry about any pesky daughter-or-son-in-law in our future!)
And clearly, my kid is not alone. This generation is hardwired to be hardwired, with tech at their fingertips from birth. As a parent, it's hard to deny our trusty touchscreen pacifiers in restaurants, on line in the grocery store, on planes and in the car. And as our children grow, I watch how tech knowledge becomes social currency: "Have you seen the latest Stampy Longnose video where he goes through the Saw Maze in MineCraft? I got the Quantum Physics Mod! What's your skin, I Ballistic Squid or Dan TDM? And have YOU ever found Hero Brine in his golden house in The Nether?"
My son knows detailed ins and outs of games he's never played, just from hearing hours of talk about them on the schoolyard (in first grade.) And though I wrestle and limit severely and monitor his screen time ad nauseam, to a large degree, I support it. I want my kid to be proficient in these online languages that my half-analog brain can't begin to comprehend. And there is so much great, worthwhile content out there for him to explore -- shows and games and apps that are exciting and groundbreaking and expansive.
That said, this incessant obsession with all things "plugged" comes at a great cost, especially for families. Primarily, of course, is the ironic loss of true connection, as we spend so much time interconnecting everywhere beyond where we are together. I find some of the greatest losses to be the most simple ones: those banal moments that are quickly vanishing from our daily existence as we drown in mobile noise. And that is why it is so essential to put down our devices and model for our kids the importance of unplugging, of mindfully recapturing some of the casualties of this hyper-digital age.
The Collateral Damage of Over-plugging (a.k.a. My National Day of Unplugging Bucket List)
1. Explore the lost art of boredom. This generation of kids does not know how to rock boredom. Boredom is the gateway drug to brilliance! Imagination! Invention! Using the quick digital fix to quell the (albeit super annoying) complaints of boredom is what I believe to be the most egregious of our parenting sins today.
2. Remember the profundity of bathroom time. Before the handheld revolution, I always had my most profound thoughts in The John. Moments of true clarity, reprieve, strategizing my next move. Now, toilet time has become the best way to hide my own digital obsession, to check in with the world beyond and thereby check out of the present I'm in -- without being rude. The sacred space of toilet time reflection is a lost oasis I aim to reclaim.
3. Show up! My phone recently ran out of batteries on a trip to NYC and I wasn't able to plug back in before a work dinner I'd scheduled. Panic! Should I go anyway? Would he be trying to reach me to make sure I'd be there? To change venue? To say he was flaking? Would he think I was flaking if he couldn't reach me instantly? How about just sticking to the plan and SHOWING UP?!
4. Snoop. Eavesdrop. People watch. Observe. Map out all the crags on the faces in the subway. Make up stories about the odd couple at the next table. Take a beat to take in the awesome diversity of humanity right next to you.
5. Honor your senses. Everything tastes better, smells better, feels softer, shines brighter when we stop, breathe and experience life with all our senses. Even for the finest multi-tasker, device distraction keeps us from being able to engage the compendium of our amazing sensory ability, hindering us from ever fully being present.
Last year for the National Day of Unplugging, I got hardcore and rode my bike everywhere that day. When the sun drew to a close, I huffed and puffed up the hill near my house and landed on the bluffs overlooking the sunset over the Pacific. It was extraordinary. Squinting through my minor adult-onset asthma attack, I could see the magenta/mauve/tangerine watercolor of the sky, could smell the sea air, feel the coolness of nightfall landing on my sweaty skin. Alive. What else did I see? Everyone else looking at their phones. I couldn't help it -- I yelled out: "Enjoy the sunset, people!" And while most everyone looked at me like I was a nut job, one dad with a young boy smiled and guiltily slipped his phone into his back pocket. My comrade nodded as I rode away. Darkness fell fast as I pedaled into my driveway. This glorious day of unplugged bliss had ended. I, of course, ran to my computer, counting down the seconds to my next technological encounter.
*Samantha Kurtzman-Counter is the President of The Mother Company, a mom-founded multi-media company guided by the mission to Help Parents Raise Good People. TheMotherCo.com offers world-renowned expert advice for parents and award-winning media products for young kids, focused on the social and emotional issues that matter most to parents, educators and caregivers. She also loves to blog for The Huffington Post, eat artichokes and kiss little freckled cheeks. Find out more at TheMotherCo.com.