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Retreating from Tech—One Special Day Every Week

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Just saw another article about parents’ battle against kids’ screen time. In this one, author Naomi Schaefer-Riley, author of a new book denouncing much screen-time for kids (Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat, 2018), takes on Jordan Shapiro, author of a new book telling parents to be cool with kids’ love for devices (The New Childhood, 2018).

Dueling admonitions.

Moms and dads now fret not over whether to allow their kids access to apps and internet—but when to buy a first cellphone, feeling it’s a matter of safety to be able to track and talk with offspring at all times. They grapple with the way to limit and shape what their kids can view, with technology becoming perhaps the most constant battleground for adult-child discord.

And parents are exhausted by it. They’ve heard of all the internet-fueled addictions—to gaming, posting, tweeting and following. Both children and adults feel the urgency of responding when devices call, which is why Apple added a “screen time” report in its latest iOS. Apps and social media are so compelling, it takes far more authoritarian effort to keep kids away from tech than it does to let them indulge.

And parents feel the urge, too—most acknowledge that they, themselves, have a tough time shutting off their phones and laptops, often saying work demands it, or that they need to be available to a child or spouse. Parents who strive to tame screen time can at least put away their phones when greeting their children after school or returning from work, modeling the kind of live-human priority they hope to instill. But believing that personal contact should trump devices is easier than actually turning off the phone for hours. It’s one thing to forbid kids’ using tech during dinner ; it’s quite another not to look at an incoming text when your own phone sounds its “ding!”

An October, 2018 study in The Lancet assessed 4,500 US children aged 8-11 on their screen time, sleep and physical activity.  The researchers found that the closer children came to recommendations for these three areas—which includes less than two hours’ screen time daily—the higher the children’s cognitive abilities.

A separate study of teens found that those spending five hours or more online daily were significantly more likely to have a risk factor for suicide than those spending an hour or less. Also, teens with high use of social media reported greater unhappiness, and got less sleep than peers who devoted significantly less time online.

Here’s a suggestion, adapted from millenniums-old wisdom. It’s pretty well known; in fact, it’s the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Why not take a weekly Tech-Sabbath, a day free from screens?

By choosing one day regularly as an inviolate escape devices, you liberate yourself from the tyranny of six other days’ screen time. And once your usual crew of friends and acquaintances understands you’re invariably incommunicado for the same full day every single week without exception, they won’t even try to reach you during your newly “normal” blackout.

Whether you select a day with religious meaning (ie- Sunday for Christians, Saturday for Jews) or simply as a family policy to give highest priority to uninterrupted time together, you’ll need the self-discipline to actually put away your phones and laptops where they’re out of easy reach. Better to turn them off, or at least reduce the sound to vibrate, and store them for the day in a drawer you don’t often open, to minimize temptation.

It helps to announce to friends and co-workers that this will be a family rule going forward, and to anticipate the day during the week by talking about the activities you’ll do together. Frame your holiday from tech not as restrictive, but rather as making space for something precious. Claiming a non-negotiably screens-free day opens you to precious and irreplaceable experiences.

But your family’s commitment must be, well, written in stone. Once you make an exception, then cheating gets easy, and you’re back to being dominated by your screens.

In our observant Jewish family, Shabbat, which runs from dusk on Friday night until dark Saturday night, is our natural tech time-off.  Occasionally we do get the urge to ask Alexa a question, or pull out the phone to show photos, but then the commitment kicks in: “Oh yeah, it’s Shabbat.” Jewish tradition includes two ways to celebrate. “Remembering” the Sabbath includes all the events that uplift the day—gathering for a festive meal, attending synagogue, blessings over the wine and challah loaves. “Guarding” the Sabbath represents all the creative activities and devices we step back from, instead mindfully appreciating the world and each other.

The rule “no screens” allows you to rediscover old-fashioned pleasures. Remember reading a book, instead of your Kindle? The rustle of newspaper pages, or the forgotten art of story-telling? When was the last time you took out old photo albums, or the pictures Grandma lovingly packed in the shoeboxes in the garage? Why not open your closet filled with board games, and revive the laughter of classics like Charades? Does anyone still have a hula hoop? You can plan to do all these things together on your own tech-Shabbat. Just remember to really set aside the day.

In Hebrew, the word we translate as “holy” actually means “set aside.” “Kiddush” is the word for the blessing that uplifts the Sabbath wine. The Hebrew word for a wedding ceremony, designating a couple exclusively to each other, comes from the same root: “kiddushin.”

To inspire a family to put down its cell phones and laptops requires something special to attract them—so focus your tech-Shabbat day on reinforcing the most precious relationships we have.

Or not. A personal, quiet day liberated from screens each week can be equally joyful for a single individual celebrating alone. The concept of “self-care” means the freedom to breathe deeply and enjoy feel-good pursuits without pressures impinging. Choosing to observe your own tech-Shabbat can afford you time to choose, and time for peace.

Your phone and your emails will still be there the next day, but you’ll be far more refreshed when you return to answer the scream of the screens.


Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist and author of six books, most recently Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage. She and her husband, author, radio and podcast host Michael Medved, raised their three children—and are enjoying their two small granddaughters—near Seattle, WA. Reach her at DianeMedved.com.

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