Unplugged (part 2)

For the background behind this post, see part 1.

Forty-eight hours with no television until after baby’s bedtime, no social media, no phone apps except for my camera and minimal texting—as someone who didn’t grow up with these things, it shouldn’t have even been a ‘challenge,’ yet I still thought giving up my favorite technology by taking the “Unplugged Challenge” with my middle school students would be eye-opening. I guess I thought I’d feel freer, or more in the moment, or I’d come to some great life-altering epiphany.

I didn’t.

Instead, I found giving up social media and other technology a confirmation. I knew over the last few years my technology use had exploded. I was aware I was spending more time than I should ‘connected’ to one device or another. I even had a pretty good idea of why I was doing it. Unplugging did help me think about what reasons and uses are (perhaps) legit and which are excuses or bad habits.

My longest standing technology obsession is the one that uses the oldest technology, bothers me the most now that I have a child, and it is definitely a hard to break habit with little benefit: it’s watching the evening news. There’s history to this habit that I won’t get into here, but for now let’s just say it’s inherited. Yet long after I moved out on my own, I was still watching the 5, 5:30, and 6 o’clock editions of the local news broadcasts while I cooked, ate, and cleaned up from dinner. The newscasters I grew up with were a comfort, a companion as I ate alone. The problem is I don’t eat alone anymore. I have an adorable little person in the high chair next to me now. No, he’s not much for conversation at the moment, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be talking to him, or just tickling those pudgy toes, anything but looking over his head at the weather forecast for the third time in an hour.

My social media and online time was another area of concern, but one I feel I was already pretty good at self-policing. While I scroll my Facebook feed frequently, I don’t do it when I’m playing with my son. Though to help with the temptation during the challenge I did turn off all notifications and wondered why I never thought to do that before. I’m not knocking all social media, though. It was a sanity-saver during those first few weeks of cluster feeding and reflux that led to nearly all naps being taken on me. It was a way of staying connected to the ‘outside world’ during a time I sometimes felt isolated. Even now on weekends alone with the baby, social media allows me interaction, albeit virtual, with other adults, which sometimes I just need. At work I still use social media to pass the time pumping, because damn it if I’m going to be locked in a book closest every couple hours, I deserve a guilty pleasure. But now that my little man is more interactive, I try to put the phone down and just play during my time at home with him—or when I do pick it up, it’s to take cute pictures of him! I try to wait until nap time to post them, but I admit sometimes I want to share them right then.

The online forums and mothers’ groups can also rack up screen time, but again I’m doing them after baby’s bedtime, and I’m using them as a connection to other single, local, and/or nursing moms to get advice, share stories, and provide support. In a world where so many moms work or are isolated staying at home, I think these groups are great. Unless they become negative for me or encroach on play time, I don’t feel the need to give them up, but taking a break for one weekend didn’t bother me either.

So while I didn’t have an earth-shattering realization during my unplugged weekend, I did learn a little. First, the world didn’t end because I missed the local news, and reading the thermometer before leaving the house was about as useful as a New England weather forecast anyways. If I want to keep the family obsession, I mean tradition, alive, I can and should do it after baby’s bedtime—at least until he’s old enough to join me. As for the mom forums, the other mothers survived (maybe enjoyed) a weekend without my questions and commentary, so maybe an occasional break is a good idea.

The hardest part would have been going so long without interacting with other adults, but I luckily had dinner plans with my brother’s family and a playdate with two co-workers and their sons. At first I almost felt this was cheating, since I was busier than I normally would be, but maybe that’s the lesson. Maybe I need to be better about making face-to-face plans, especially in the winter when I tend to want to hibernate, to provide myself opportunities to feel connected without being “plugged in.”

Finally, reading my students’ reflections on their unplugged experiences, a number of them mentioned that they went out and played more. These ‘screenagers’ built snow forts, played with neighbors, watched siblings’ sporting events, all without phones in their faces. Maybe as adults we can follow their lead, put down our phones, and find ways to ‘play’ with our kids and one another face-to-face like we did growing up.

Unplugged (part 1)

As I sit here on my laptop with my smartphone on one side of me and the video baby monitor on the other, I am the picture of ‘plugged in.’ But last weekend for 48 hours I partially unplugged as a means of reflecting on how and why I use technology and whether it’s helping or hindering.

The school district I teach in was one of many this year that showed students, parents, and community members the new documentary, Screenagers. While I never got to see it myself (we were in conferences when it was shown), our school community has been engaged in conversations for years about the amount of technology students use in and out of the classroom and whether it is to their benefit or not. What wasn’t talked much about was the amount of technology the adults were using.

So when it was announced that the students would be challenged to participate in an “Unplugged” weekend, I was intrigued. I wondered how many kids would partake even with the bribe of a Chipotle lunch. I was also interested in whether they were old enough to really self-reflect and learn from such an experience. I hoped they were. I even decided to help with that self-reflection (and add to the bribery) by offering an extra credit writing assignment with topics for them to consider.

But middle schoolers are savvy and while most kept their reactions to such a proposal to silent eye rolls, a few came right out and asked the adults when they’d be giving up their phones. They wanted us to put up or shut up, or more accurately to turn off or shut up.

They had a point.

Adults could argue that our brains are fully developed and that we’re mature enough to use technology responsibly. We probably use apps that we deem necessary (because Candycrush is saving the world), write more emails than texts (all work-related I’m sure), watch more educational television (there’s something to be learned from Grey’s Anatomy marathons, right?), and partake in less online bullying (um, have you seen the mom-shaming online or read the president’s Twitter feed?).

But does it matter how we use technology, if the technology we use becomes all-consuming? Are we as adults any less guilty of overdoing screen time and under-appreciating the real-life moments happening right in front of us?

I wasn’t sure we are. Actually I was pretty convinced I was as guilty as many of my students of being addicted to certain aspects of technology. And as an adult who knows better, I suppose one could argue I was twice as bad. My guilty tech-pleasures are watching the local television news (even during meals), and using my phone for Facebook, my online Single Mother’s by Choice forums, and Pinterest, with occasional dabbling on Instagram and Twitter. The older my little guy gets, though, the more guilt and the less pleasure I have when I catch myself checking my phone or looking over his head to see the news when I should be enjoying time with him.

So last weekend I joined the over sixty kids at my school in the “Unplugged Challenge.” While as a single mom who was doing some highway traveling at night with the baby, I didn’t feel comfortable actually handing over my phone as many of them agreed to, for 48 hours I did turn off all social media apps and pledged not to watch television when my guy was awake. So just after noon on Friday I went dark.

Okay, that’s a little dramatic, but dramatic was exactly what I expected. But not exactly what I experienced. For those revelations, check out part two.

Oh, and for any fellow educators or parents of teens out there who are interested, here are the discussion questions I provided my students to help them reflect:

  • How do you normally use social media/technology throughout your day/weekend? How did giving it up change your daily activities?
  • What was the hardest thing to give up? Why?
  • Were there positives of putting your phone down? Explain.
  • What aspects of having a smart phone/technology felt necessary before this experiment? Did giving up some/all change your mind about anything?
  • What time of day did you miss your technology the most? What did you do instead? Explain.
  • Was this a worthwhile experiment? Would you recommend other kids and adults try it?
  • Will you try to make any changes to your use of technology as a result of your experience?

Photo credit: Nathaphat Chanphirom | Dreamstime.com