Monday, March 6, was the National Day of Unplugging, a project that sprung from an organization called the Sabbath Manifesto. They encourage a 24-hour digital detox as a way to slow down and connect with ourselves and the world around us. SUWS of the Carolinas students took part, as they do every day in the woods while participating in our programming. Over the years, we have noticed the benefits of spending weeks without smartphones and computer screens, and research is supporting what we see.
I am not one to sound the alarm that the younger generations are doomed by their apparent dependence on internet technology. Much of our fear is based on conjecture, and it will take at least another generation for us to have confidence in the research. But it is clear that there have been negative consequences, from minor overstimulation to the serious repercussions that we see with drug addiction, cyberbullying, and exploitation. In the absence of longitudinal studies spanning decades, we can see the impact of technology when we observe what happens in its absence. UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain notes that taking a technology break offers benefits such as:
- Better relationships with loved ones
- Fewer distractions from daily tasks
- Better self-esteem
- Increased mindfulness
- Lowered stress
- Improved physical health
The idea of taking regular breaks from technology — whether for a few hours or a few weeks — is becoming increasingly well-known and popular. Driven by a desire for a better night’s sleep, more face-to-face interaction, or simply a reset to reduce mindless browsing, a tech fast allows us to examine our relationship with screens. It can be challenging to realize how much our behaviors have become habit. Simply removing social media apps from our smartphones can result in anxiety at first. Given enough time, that anxiety can transform into a sense of liberation.
My initial deep concern about teens and their “screen addiction” has softened significantly over the years. Or, rather, I have found hope in witnessing young people who, not long after arriving in a wilderness therapy setting without their devices, appear to forget about them within hours or days. When we do great work, we help them become aware of the benefits Mirgain describes. Of course, nearly all students return quickly to their old habits when they leave the field and are once again immersed in a world where screens are ubiquitous.
Only a few years ago, it was difficult to find specific guidance on what constitutes a healthy relationship with technology. Some experts provided guidelines, but it was mostly guesswork. And much of what they had to say focused on the negative rather than the benefits of setting limits on tech use. (I have included some resources below that parents and clinicians may find helpful.)
Perhaps one of the greatest tools in shaping a new perspective and experience of screen use is in the wilderness. It provides a weekslong experience without screens, helping reset the nervous system and demonstrating that we can feel, think, and function at least OK without them, if not far better.
With all of this in mind, SUWS will offer a “Tech Break” group in the summer of 2020 for teen boys. Spanning three weeks, from June 28-July 19, these students will engage in primitive hiking and camping. With opportunities for play, adventure, and creativity, they will have the chance to enjoy 21 days without a screen. While there will be some education on the negative consequences of tech-overuse, the focus will be on the positives of a healthy balance.
Meanwhile, their parents will be doing their own exploration, and some will take their own tech breaks. We will present learning tools to help them stay aware of, and set boundaries for, their children’s relationship with technology. Our goal is to ensure that when students return home, they are in a better place to engage in this new perspective on technology.
Meanwhile, we are doing our own work in noticing the benefits of unplugging. We are asking ourselves the same questions we ask our students. When you unplug, do you notice:
- A difference in the way you regulate emotions and self-soothe?
- A difference in the way you communicate and connect?
- A difference in your creativity when it comes to play?
- A difference in your energy when you are not engaged in the comparing that social media encourages?
I invite you to find some time for yourself to unplug and to notice as well.
SCREENAGERS – This began as a webpage promoting the 2016 film and has become an ever-evolving resource that includes pro-social video games, models for school cellphone policies, and other resources.
Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids – and How to Break the Trance, by Dr. Nicholas Kardaras. This 2016 book lays some very useful groundwork on the topic of screen addiction in children.
The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps to Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, by Andy Crouch (2017)
The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life, by Anya Kamenetz (2018)
Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology, by Diana Graber (2019)
SUWS of the Carolinas offers wilderness programs for adolescents who are struggling with various challenges, including mental health concerns, substance use, behavioral issues, and autism spectrum disorder. Our expert staff provides developmentally appropriate care to young people in a safe, therapeutic environment. We accept private pay only, but our staff can help develop a detailed financial plan for your family to ensure your child gets the care they need so that they can successfully return to their school and community.