Unplug: Disconnect to Reconnect

 In Family Matters
Disconnect to reconnect

Several years ago, I harbored some pretty dark fantasies regarding my young son’s cell phone. His text messaging was out of control. I considered placing his phone in the path of a stampeding elephant. I imagined tossing it into the deep blue sea where harmonizing humpback whales would muffle its incessant dinging, chirping, and buzzing. Or I could have followed the lead of another parent who proved his child’s cell phone was no match for the rugged tire of his Jeep Wrangler (note: the child was not using the phone at the time).

Instead, I reined in my dramatic tendencies and established some basic rules: No texting at the dinner table. No texting while doing homework. No texting after 9 pm. No texting until you’re 18 and able to pay for your own phone (this last one was wishful thinking).

According to Christopher Roberts, a licensed clinical social worker and addictions specialist with Coastal Counseling in Manteo, I was on the right track. “One way to provide balance with technology use is to have limits,” he says. “Especially with children and teens.”

“Technological access is important, but it is a tool, not a way of life,” says Dr. Andrea Facci, a behavioral health and substance abuse counselor in Kitty Hawk. “We need to be connected, but we also need to have our own interests and that of our family’s health at center-stage. Access is fine, but over-accessing is a poor choice which over time becomes a habit, a compulsion.”

Speaking of compulsion, studies have shown that the average smartphone user checks their device an alarming 110 times a day! And experts say that excessive interaction with digital technology – phones, tablets, laptops, game consoles, and TVs – can disrupt sleep and cause mental fatigue, including problems with memory, concentration, and focusing.

Heads up! It’s time to Unplug!

Unplugging on vacation

And what better time than vacation to give unplugging a whirl? Besides, the whole purpose of a vacation is to recharge your mind, body, and soul. 

In the spring and fall, John takes his two teen and pre-teen boys camping for four days in the mountains. It is a mobile device-free time for everyone. “The kids love it,” says John. No Instagram. No Facebook, No Snapchat. No crazy cat videos. Fishing and hiking consume their days in the great outdoors. Evenings are spent around a campfire, roasting marshmallows, and engaging in the dying art of face-to-face conversation. “They think staring at a blazing fire is way more interesting than staring at a TV or computer screen,” says John. “My kids have grown up with technology so it’s not a big deal for them to break away for a while.” 

As Wi-Fi continues to spread across the globe like an alien life form, the possibility of working anywhere, anytime, increases. Therein lies the problem – how to separate work time from relaxation time. We need an “Off” switch.

“Reprioritizing,” says Dr. Facci, “is key to help us regulate mind, body, and spirit so that we place quiet time and together time as a priority.”

Breaking away from job responsibilities and technology while on vacation requires planning ahead. Discuss your absence with colleagues and delegate someone to handle urgent requests while you’re away. Set up automatic email responses, letting clients know you’re out of the office and will have limited access. Disable apps and notifications on your phone so you won’t be disturbed.  If breaking away entirely is not an option, you may wish to set aside an hour a day to respond to emails and put out fires.

Let’s drop in on a family who could benefit from some digital downtime while vacationing on Hatteras Island. Sunshine? Check. Atlantic Ocean? Check. Kids happily frolicking along white sandy beach? Check. Mom and Dad? Checked out. Tucked under the beach umbrella, we find Mom, nose buried in smartphone, probably “multi-tasking” as she reviews a co-worker’s final budget figures while also scrolling through her Facebook feed to get updates on what her “friends” had for dinner. And Dad, nose also buried in smartphone, is probably responding to work emails while simultaneously chuckling at videos involving human encounters with wildlife.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, their young children have ventured further into the beckoning water. Luckily, Zane with Ocean Rescue has been keeping a close eye on the situation. When it becomes apparent that Mom and Dad are unaware of the impending danger, Zane intervenes, swooping in to save the little ones from being washed out to sea. Kudos to Zane. And for the parents? A crucial wake-up call.

Ryan, a local bartender, has encountered plenty of candidates for a digital detox program. While he can prepare a perfectly blended Mojito, angle a glass just so when pouring a beer, or deliver a vodka martini – shaken, not stirred – Ryan is not a mind reader. So it would certainly speed things along if his customers would wrap up that phone call or text message so he could take their order. “People are so fixated on their phones,” says Ryan, “they hardly notice the person sitting next to them.” With a view to the dining area, he’s seen families gathered around the table sharing a meal but distracted by their phones, leaving conversation at a standstill (and hushpuppies growing cold).

Roberts said he believes the single greatest concern with excessive technology use is the effect on our relationships with other people.

Case in point. A friend related how her boyfriend had a basic phone without a data plan. He vowed and declared he would never get a smartphone. But then he did. And he proceeded to totally ignore her while scrolling through sports scores, watching sports videos, shopping for sports gear, etc.  Sadly, their relationship did not last. However, he and his phone are still together.

And then there’s Jeff. Jeff will never give up his smartphone. That’s because Jeff does not have a smartphone. Jeff is the ultimate unplugged person. No text messaging for Jeff. No disruptive phone calls. And don’t bother sending him a friend request, Jeff doesn’t do Facebook. All this freedom from technology affords Jeff time at the beach with his wife and their dog, relaxing and reading real books bound with paper and glue. He enjoys screen-free face time with friends. Yep, Jeff is one happy guy!

Want to be more like Jeff? Dr. Facci says, “I encourage my clients to disengage in increments, in manageable pieces.” In other words, put yourself on a digital diet. Set a goal to go a few hours a day without checking your phone for social media updates.  Feeling obligated to respond to every post and tweet creates anxiety. Need outside reinforcement? Try BreakFree, an app that helps maintain a controlled digital lifestyle.

unplug wifi sun signal

Use technology in moderation and in a responsible manner. Make an effort to liberate yourself from your phone occasionally. A break from constant connectivity allows you to be present in the moment, engaging in the sights, sounds, and smells of the world around you. Meditation and introspection are good for the soul.

Treat yourself to the spectacle of the sun rising over the ocean. It need not be captured in a photo to share. Admire it with your own eyes, enjoying it for what it is – the start of a new day. ♦


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