By by Lobna Mulla
At the risk of aging myself, in the 90’s, the term “unplugged” referred to a show where artists musically entertained a small audience without the aid of electric instruments. These days however, when families are encouraged to go “unplugged” they are persuaded to spend time together free of “electronic distractions” or as my older brother, an electrical engineer, says, “e-distractions,” for short. Such distractions include the myriad of miniature instant gratification devices otherwise known as Nintendo DS’s, iPods, tablets, phones, not to mention larger distractions, like television, gaming consoles such as Wii, Xbox, etc., and the classic home computer. We all know the merits of quality family time on a real-time basis, but the question is: how?
First, it is important to understand the ramifications of the entire family’s increased relationship with electronics. Studies show that family bonds are weakening since members are spending more screen time and less face time. Children and adults alike are losing the ability to engage in small talk and are gaining an increased apathy towards others. An increased desire for visual stimulation and a decreased attention span are also compelling reasons to push for familial electronic time-outs. Feelings of detachment of family members from one another leads to an increased reliance on comfort in superficial “e-relationships” and fleeting moments of gratification from Facebook posts, game console victories, and endless text conversations.
To console those who enjoy the above-mentioned activities, this article is not intended to condemn them. Instead, it is meant to point out the importance of giving our technological toys a “time-out” and to tune-in to the family on a consistent basis. The beauty of this concept is that every family, regardless of its size, can custom make a “reconnect plan” of their own.
For example, consider setting guidelines for the family, which include times where technology use is not allowed. Such times can include family meals, a specific hour in the evening, or better yet, an entire day of the week. For some of you, the mere thought of spending more than a few minutes away from your tablet or phone causes increased anxiety. Sadly enough, this is now documented as a new disorder called “cell phone separation anxiety disorder,” where sufferers experience increased anxiety if they are away from their phones. Yes, separation from instant gratification devices can be painful, but like lower primates, we can be trained to return to our natural e-distraction free state. We have to re-learn basic skills like getting over boredom, engaging with others in a meaningful conversation, touching dirt and looking for bugs, and even having to talk to our parents’ out-of-town guests or long lost relatives.
Now, you may ask, how can we accomplish such a feat when toddlers, teens, and adults have become inseparable from their various screens? First, give before you take away. A classic concept in discipline is to replace an undesirable habit with a desirable one. Simply said, provide fun alternatives for your family. I have heard parents complain that their children only want to play on their electronic devices all day long. Yet these same parents do not spend the time to take their children to the park, play a board game with them, let alone purchase such games, or even make the effort to engage their family members in an interesting discussion.
Below are some easy, family re-connect ideas. But be forewarned, you will receive resistance from at least some of your family members. Even the adults! One key to the success of Operation Unplug and Re-Connect is to first discuss with your family guidelines to be followed. Come up with a Re-connect plan that outlines how often you wish to have family time, e-distraction free. For example, smaller or younger families may wish to have such times once a day. Busier families, on the other hand may be content with a once-a-week schedule. Next, have your family discuss activities that at least most members can agree upon.
- Plan a family camping trip (a Mulla absolute favorite!).
- Go for a picnic at the beach or park and pack everyone’s favorite treat.
- Go outdoors and discover your surroundings. See who can find the most living things in 5 minutes.
- Engage your family in a discussion (if you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?).
- Go for a walk (some family members need more of a temptation like walking to an ice-cream or coffee shop).
- Play a board game.
- Look at family photos and reminisce.
- Divide and conquer if necessary: Play ball with some and play building blocks with others.
The bottom line is adding meaningful family quality time to our life, minus the electronic devices. We would see healthier home lives and more well-rounded members of the community. Changing familial habits is not easy, but well-worth it. Unplug, re-connect, be patient, and enjoy.