Does Your Family Need a Digital Detox?

Does Your Family Need a Digital Detox?

It’s hard for some of us to imagine, but some kids and teens rarely – if ever – have an uninterrupted conversation with a close friend. Although they may long to have a real heart-to-heart talk, the conversation is continually disrupted by incoming texts.

In her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle explores the battering that real-life friendship has taken from mobile devices.

From middle school on, Turkle explains, teens have felt obligated to answer texts at any time in case of “emergencies.” When friends are distant, she says, they are hypervigilant in watching out for each other; when they are together, they are inattentive and immersed in their phones — something known as “phubbing,” i.e., ignoring someone in favor of a cell phone. Turkle recounts one student confronting her friends on their phone use: “Sometimes I’ll just go crazy…because you’re, like, text, text, text. And I’m like, are you listening to me? I’m trying to talk to you!”

Parents may have inadvertently set this trend in motion, according to Turkle’s research.  With many trapped in 24/7 jobs and routinely disrupting family time to take work calls and texts, they’ve have given their kids the message that nothing they have to say is too special or too important to go uninterrupted. For children with Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, this message is especially difficult, since it undermines feelings of security and connectedness they need to heal.

Other parents use the playground as a time to catch up on their Facebook and Instagram feeds even though toddlers are tugging at their arms in an urgent bid for attention – something Turkle finds troubling. “Family conversations are the training ground for empathy,” she told one interviewer. “If kids don’t use the part of their brain stimulated by conversing with an attentive parent, they will fail to develop the brain circuitry for this skill. In my work with families, I found over and over again that children are craving, just craving, undivided attention from their parents. And they are just not getting it.”

Learning how to connect

One innovative initiative to reverse this trend was started by Marygrace Sexton, the CEO and founder of Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Company. After noticing a significant decline in productivity among her 200 employees — a change that she linked to social media use — she started a nonprofit called A-GAP designed to help people develop a healthier relationship with technology.

A-GAP, based on the Atlantic Coast of Florida,  takes youth groups and others on retreats for a “digital detox,” some of which involve leaving phones behind to hike the Appalachian Trail, eat home-cooked meals in a country inn, play basketball and volleyball, and sing and talk together in the evening. A few have tried to sneak in with a phone, according to A-GAP leaders, but many participants have said the time spent in silence or off the screen “is one of their most cherished memories,” says Bethany Baker, executive director of A-GAP.  

“A digital detox is great for rebooting, but what we’re really encouraging is a different lifestyle, a sort of spiritual rejuvenation,” says Baker, a Millennial who helps lead both faith- and non-faith-based retreats. “In my generation, among others, I’ve noticed people are increasingly stressed and overwhelmed by comparing themselves to others on social media. We wind up losing sleep and feeling lonely and depressed. We’re not appreciating who we are. At A-GAP we help people practice ways to go deeper, to go outside and play, to tune into nature. We need to become comfortable with silence and solitude, too, to learn how to listen and reflect and be there for each other.”

These goals are shared by a number of teachers, mindfulness researchers and non-profits worried about diminishing empathy and connection linked to social media use. Along with A-GAP, organizations like Digital Detox and 12-step groups for “tech addicts” are springing up around the country.

Re-connecting with your kids

If you feel a digital divide is creating distance between you and your kids, here are some ideas to try out:

Create a no-digital media zone at family meals. Ideally, mealtimes should be a time of connection and warmth, not scolding or checking WhatsApp. Experts recommend keeping the phones turned off and out of sight, since studies show that even having a smartphone next to you lowers the quality of an in-person conversation.

Don’t use your phone during outdoor play. If you can’t stand to go without your phone for two hours in the park, Turkle advises taking the kids to the playground for 30 minutes and not taking out your phone even once.

Be present. Give your children some undivided attention every day, and especially when they ask for it. You deserve time to yourself, too, but when you’re having a talk with your children, put the phone away.

Create “anchoring rituals” for non-screen fun. Daily routines like bedtime stories and family meals give kids a feeling of safety and security, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Take the kids to the playground, fly a frisbee, play basketball. Have a night where you play cards or board games like Pictionary or Hedbanz. Cook family dinners together, read aloud, volunteer together for community work, and have nightly check-ins.

Teach your kids not to fear boredom or imperfection. Social media encourages kids (and adults) to create a false self to present to the world. In addition, boredom and solitude can inspire creativity and teach kids how to build up their inner emotional resources, according to Turkle. As she wrote in a Tweet, “Boredom is your imagination calling to you.”


Alloway, T., Runac, R., Quershi, M. & Kemp, G. (2014). Is Facebook Linked to Selfishness? Investigating the Relationships among Social Media Use, Empathy, and Narcissism. Social Networking, 3, 150-158.

Jacobs, T. Even Just the Presence of a Smartphone Lowers the Quality of In-Person Conversations. Pacific Standard. June 18, 2017.

Misra, S., Cheng, L., Genevie, J., & Yuan, M. (2016). The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices. Environment and Behavior48(2), 275–298. 

Olney, K. 6 Ways to Get Your Kid to Stop Texting and Talk to You. Mother Nature News, 2015.

Turkle, S. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. London and New York: Penguin Press, 2015.

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