Digital detox: Why I pulled the plug on my family

Computer screens flickering. Televisions blaring. Games consoles bleeping. Our homes have become dominated by electronic equipment. So Susan Maushart decided it was time to give herself – and her children – a digital deto

Tuesday 28 December 2010 01:00

Raising three teenagers as a single parent is no Kon-Tiki cruise at the best of times. But when I decided we should all set sail for a six-month screen-free adventure, it suddenly came closer to The Caine Mutiny, with me in the Bogart role.

There were lots of reasons why we pulled the plug on our electronic media... or, I should say, why I did, because heaven knows my children would have sooner volunteered to go without food, water, or hair products. At ages 14, 15, and 18, my daughters Sussy and Anni and my son Bill don't use media. They inhabit media. And they do so exactly as fish inhabit a pond. Gracefully. Unblinkingly. And utterly without consciousness or curiosity as to how they got there. They don't remember a time before email, or instant messaging, or Google. Even the media of their own childhood – VHS and dial-up, Nintendo 64 and "cordful" phones – they regard as relics, as quaint as inkwells. They collectively refer to civilisation pre–high-definition flat screens as "the black and white days".

My children – like yours, I'm guessing – are part of a generation that cut its teeth, literally and figuratively, on a keyboard, learning to say "'puter" along with "mama," "juice," and "now!" They've had mobile phones and wireless internet longer than they've had molars. Who multitask their schoolwork alongside five or six other electronic inputs, to the syncopated beat of the Instant Messenger pulsing insistently like some distant tribal tom-tom.

Wait a minute. Did I say they do their schoolwork like that? Correction. They do their life like that.

When my children laugh, they don't say "ha ha." They say "LOL." In fact, they conjugate it. ("LOL at this picture before I Photoshopped your nose, Mum!") They download movies and TV shows as casually as you or I might switch on the radio. And when I remind them piracy is a crime, they look at one another and go "LOL". ("Aargh, me hearty!" someone adds, as if to an imaginary parrot, and they LOL again, louder this time.) These are children who shrug when they lose their iPods, with all 5,000 tunes and Lord-knows- what in the way of video clips, feature films, and "TV" shows (like, who watches TV on a television anymore?). "There's plenty more where that came from," their attitude says. And the most infuriating thing of all? They're right. The digital content that powers their world, like matter itself, can never truly be destroyed. Like the magic pudding of legend, it's a dessert bar that never runs out of cheesecake.

There's so much that's wonderful, and at the same time nauseating, about that. "The Winter of Our Disconnect" – aka "The Experiment" (as we all eventually came to call it) – was in some ways an accident waiting to happen. Over a period of years, I watched and worried as our media began to function as a force field separating my children from what my son, only half ironically, called RL (Real Life). But to be honest, the teenagers weren't the only ones with dependency issues. Although a relatively recent arrival to the global village, I'd been known to abuse information too. (Sneaking my iPhone into the toilet? Did I have no self-respect?) As a journalist, it was easy to hide my habit, but deep down I knew I was hooked.

The Winter of Our Disconnect started out as a kind of purge. It ended up as so much more. Long story short: our digital detox messed with our heads, our hearts, and our homework. It changed the way we ate and the way we slept, the way we "friended", fought, planned, and played. It altered the very taste and texture of our family life. Hell, it even altered the mouth-feel. In the end, our family's self-imposed exile from the information age changed our lives indelibly — and infinitely for the better.

At the simplest level, The Winter of Our Disconnect is the story of how one highly idiosyncratic family survived six months of wandering through the desert, digitally speaking, and the lessons we learnt about ourselves and our technology along the way. At the same time, our story is a channel, if you'll excuse the expression, to a wider view – into the impact of new media on the lives of families, into the very heart of the meaning of home.

"Only connect," implored EM Forster in his acclaimed novel Howards End, published a century ago. It must have seemed like such a good idea at the time. In 1910, the global village was still farmland. The telephone had only recently outgrown the ridicule that first greeted it. The first commercial radio station was still a world war away. It had been a scant 60 years since the debut of the telegraph. ("What hath God wrought?" inventor Samuel FB Morse brooded morosely in the world's first text message.)

Ninety-nine years and one trillion web pages later, "only connect" is a goal we have achieved with a vengeance. So much so, that our biggest challenge today may be finding the moral courage to log off.

Today, some 93 per cent of American teenagers are online and 75 per cent use mobile phones, according to 2010 figures from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Marketing data shows that 92 per cent of teens own an iPod or MP3 player, while upward of two-thirds own their own computer (and access to one at home is near-universal). But the most provocative statistics are those that show how intensely our children interact with their media.

In a large-scale study of young people who use media, conducted in 2005 – ancient history already – up to a third told the Kaiser Family Foundation they were using multiple electronic devices simultaneously "most of the time". Researchers calculated that that meant the average American teenager was spending 8.5 hours a day in some form of mass-mediated interaction.

By 2010, when Kaiser updated the data, the media bubble continued to swell. Children aged eight to 18 had now increased their screen time by more than an hour and a quarter a day, from 6hrs 21mins to7hrs 38 mins – or the equivalent of an average working day, seven days a week. When multitasking was factored into the equation, the figure distended even further: to nearly 11 hours of what researchers now call "exposure". Add time spent texting and talking on mobile phones – which the Kaiser folk did not even define as media – and the picture gets downright radioactive.

For Generation M, as the Kaiser report dubbed these eight-to-18-year-olds, media use is not an activity – such as exercise, or playing Monopoly, or bickering with your brother in the backseat. It's an environment: pervasive, invisible, shrink-wrapped around pretty much everything children do and say and think. How adaptive an environment is the question – and the answer, not surprisingly, seems to depend entirely on whom you ask. The Pew Project found that, among teens, 88 per cent are convinced that technology makes their lives easier. A decidedly more ambivalent 69 per cent of parents say the same – although two-thirds also make some effort to regulate their children's use of media in some way (rules about safe sites, file sharing, time use, etc).

A 2007 Kaiser study found that nearly one in five parents believed there was no need to monitor their childrens' screen time closely, while the Pew research showed an astonishing 30 per cent of parents believe that media has no effect on their children one way or the other.

Maybe that's wishful thinking. On the other hand, maybe it's not wishful enough. "One way or the other" – to me it's like saying the food we eat, or the air we breathe, or the communities we live in have no effect on us one way or the other. Or it could be these parents simply had a hard time imagining life outside the technological bubble - and, if so, who could blame them? Before undertaking this project, I had a hard time imagining it myself.

So... how connected, I found myself wondering, is connected enough? As a social scientist, journalist, and mother, I've always been an enthusiastic user of information technology (and I'm awfully fond of my dryer, too). But I was also growing sceptical of the redemptive power of media to improve our lives – let alone to make them "easier" or simplify them. Like many other parents, I'd noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family. (Talk about a disconnect!)

There were contradictions on a broader scale, too – and they have been widely noted. That the more facts we have at our fingertips, the less we seem to know. That the "convenience" of messaging media (email, SMS, IM) consumes ever larger and more indigestible chunks of our time and headspace. That as a culture we are practically swimming in entertainment, yet remain more depressed than any people who have ever lived. Basically, I started considering a scenario EM Forster never anticipated: the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift, the more fragmented we may become. Or not. Because, just to complicate matters, I happen to believe that the possibilities held out to us by media are hugely exciting. I am not a golden-ager, lamenting the decline of the candle in a neon-lit world. Not in the least. I love my gadgets (and I've got a gazillion of 'em to prove it). I think my life is enhanced by technology. And I know the world at large is. Yet the idea that there might be a media equivalent of what micro-finance expert David Bussau calls "an economics of enough" continued to occupy my thoughts.

It was an intriguing set of questions – and I was pretty sure I would not find the answers on Wikipedia. But how on earth could I test my hypotheses/hunches?

That's when I remembered Barry Marshall – the Australian microbiologist who won a Nobel Prize in 2005 for the simple but astounding discovery that stomach ulcers are caused by bacteria. Not stress, or spicy foods, or excess acid. Germs. Plain old germs. In retrospect, it seems so obvious. In the early Eighties, Marshall's theory was dismissed as outlandish – especially by the pharmaceutical companies that underwrite the clinical trials by which medical research is tested.

Frustrated but undaunted, Marshall decided to take matters into his own hands... indeed, into his own stomach lining. He swallowed some of the bacteria in question and waited to see whether he would develop an ulcer. He did. And the rest – give or take a decade of intensive further research – is history.

So it occurred to me: If Marshall could use his own life as a Petri dish, why couldn't I? (Gulp.)

OK, OK. So in the early weeks, we hadn't quite got the hang of "assuming the moral burden of our own boredom". I was still pretty much carrying the can for all of us – and offering cash compensation, no less, when I let the side down. That same week, I went to a barbecue and found myself surrounded by a knot of admiring parents, avid to know how we were surviving.

Honestly, I hadn't been called "brave" by so many people since the last time I took the children to midnight mass. One man, the deputy principal of a prestigious private boys' school, told me he'd recently been ordered to smartwire the residence hall to allow the boarders "equal access" under the Digital Bill of Rights. "Parents nowadays consider internet access an 'essential service,' " he explained bitterly. "I think it's nuts, but . . ." He shrugged. "I guess no one wants their children to feel deprived." I smiled just a little stiffly at that.

As The Experiment went on I watched as my children awoke slowly from the state of cognitus interruptus that had characterised many of their waking hours, to become more focused, logical thinkers. I watched as their attention spans sputtered and took off, allowing them to read for hours – not minutes – at a stretch; to practise their instruments intensively; to hold longer and more complex conversations with adults and among themselves; to improve their capacity to think beyond the present moment, even if that only translated into remembering to wash-out tights for tomorrow morning.

I'm not saying anybody suddenly went from Hannah Montana to Homer. They didn't develop an unquenchable thirst for their set texts, or learn to love their trigonometry worksheets. In fact, they probably did no more homework during The Experiment than they had done before – Sussy swears she did much less and, though her grades improved significantly, this may be true. But they all completed their schoolwork far more efficiently, far more quickly, and with visibly greater focus.

Sussy's experimental coping mechanisms differed from Anni's and Bill's significantly. The older children took the opportunity to go out more – shopping, visiting, or clubbing in Anni's case, and hanging out at the pool or jamming in somebody's garage in Bill's. Sussy had fewer friends who lived in the neighbourhood, so she faced transportation issues. Her best girlfriend, my god-daughter Maddi, lived in Melbourne (we are in Perth). Her closest boy chum, Andy, had just moved with his family to England. Partly for these reasons, her overall media-time budget probably remained unchanged. She clung to the landline like a drowning teenager to a liferaft. After school, she'd install herself in the family room and hold court before an unseen audience for two or three hours at a clip. Many people have asked me if there was ever a moment when I was tempted to quit. Not counting April 25, the day I received a phone bill for A$1,123.26 (£715), I can honestly say, no, not at all.

At the most basic level, The Experiment forced us to notice food more—just as we noticed music more, and sleep, and each other. Before, eating had been a side dish. Now it was the main course, or at least one of them.

Our approach to cooking changed, too, especially for the girls. They'd started out as reasonably competent cooks, but by the end of The Experiment they were capable of turning out entire meals with ease. Our shopping habits morphed in intriguing and unanticipated ways, too. Before, I'd often shopped for groceries here and there, dashing up to the supermarket or deli on a need-to-nosh basis. Now, the Saturday morning shopping trip became an essential weekend ritual, more palatable, less of a burden and more an event – even an opportunity to bond.

The Experiment also confirmed my strong suspicion that media had been robbing Sussy of sleep for years. She'd been our family's most militant multitasker, and the one who'd gravitated to a digital lifestyle at the youngest age. Unplugged, the changes to her sleep patterns, energy levels, and mood were correspondingly dramatic. The evidence strongly suggests she is no isolated case. For Generation M, the links between our diurnal habits and our digital ones are as direct as they are disturbing.

A 2009 study of 100 Philadelphia-area children aged 12 to 18, published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that children who spend more time online also drink more caffeinated beverages, with a resulting one-two punch to their prospects of good-sleep hygiene. "Subjects who slept the least also multi-tasked the most," the authors concluded succinctly.

Anni, as the eldest and most independent, suffered the least inconvenience and probably underwent the fewest changes; paradoxically, the process of unplugging seemed to give her the most pleasure. After an initial fit of pique, and pacified by her "incentive" (as I preferred to think of the cash bribe I'd offered), Anni more than any other child consistently supported the enterprise. In fact, she'd prefigured it, having spoken in November 2008 of a plan to undergo a self-imposed Facebook fast for the holidays.

We'd begun the Winter of Our Disconnect in glorious Australian summer. By June the winter storms began to rip up the southern coast, raining blows on our west-facing front door and causing the curtains to billow even after the windows were shut tight. That last month felt longer than the previous five put together. For me, being housebound made our screenlessness feel like a hardship for the first time. I longed to curl up with a movie, to watch 60 Minutes or even Australian Idol (that's how far gone I was) on a Sunday night. Instead, I brooded and Boggled and fetched more wood.

My woodpile was under the carport, but I started to feel pretty much the same way about it: which is to say, overly fond. "Dudes, check out my kindling!" I'd urge the children whenever we passed by. But the truth was, watching the fire was the closest thing to live home entertainment we had left. And "watching", passively watching, I realised, was important.

As a strategy for managing the long-term media ecology in our homes, bans and blackouts are probably as effective as the Three-Day Lemon Detox Diet is for lifelong weight control. As a consciousness-raising exercise, on the other hand, extreme measures can be illuminating indeed. No amount of talk (let alone yelling) could ever have persuaded Anni, Bill, and Sussy of the extent of their media dependencies as eloquently as even a week of information abstinence. But by six months, the time had definitely come to return to what our culture (rightly or wrongly) has decided is "normal".

Whenever I tell people about our experiment, the first thing they want to know – after "How much did you pay them?" – is "What did you learn?" You'll need to read the book through to the end to get the long answer – but here it is in tablet form.

The Ten Commandments for using modern media

* Thou shalt not fear boredom

* Thou shalt not "multitask" (not until thy kingdom come, thy homework be done)

* Thou shalt not text and drive (or talk, or sleep)

* Thou shalt keep the Sabbath a screen-free day

* Thou shalt keep thy bedroom a media-free zone

* Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's upgrade

* Thou shalt set thy accounts to "Private"

* Thou shalt bring no media to thy dinner

* Thou shalt bring no dinner to thy media.

© Susan Maushart, author of 'The Winter of Our Disconnect: How One Family Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell/Text/Tweet the Tale' is published by Profile Books at £11.99. To order it at the special price of £10.79 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit

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