The big tech turn-off: This family of four put away the technology for a week with some surprising results
Technology undeniably improves the way we organise our social and professional lives, and enhances our leisure time, but it’s important to maintain a balance. Slowly but surely, the UK’s use of digital devices has developed to reach the point of near total dependence.
For many families, that’s not always quite so easy. A survey for Action for Children earlier this year revealed that many UK parents find it easier to get their kids to complete a range of tasks – including homework – than get them to turn off laptops, tablets, mobile phones and the TV!
So, the big question is – could a family of four cope without digital devices for a week?
The Garner family from Cambridgeshire were prepared to try. Elizabeth, 35, a PR executive, her husband David, 36, and daughters Kate, 12, and Beatrice, 8, are perhaps typical of an ‘average’ UK family.
They use mobiles and tablets for entertainment, communication and information – playing games, browsing social media and using them to help with homework.
They volunteered to turn off everything for six days and go back to basics. However there were some rules. The children could use their mobile phones for emergencies, and both parents were able to access emails during the day while at work.
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The main focus of the exercise was to see how the family were affected in their leisure time, and how they’d function without being able to chat to friends online in the evenings and zone out to white noise.
“As a family we really don’t have the correct balance,” admitted Elizabeth. “We amuse ourselves with tech way too much. So it really was a no-brainer to lock them away and embrace a more ‘retro’ lifestyle.”
The rest of the family was less convinced.
“My husband just looked at me in that long-suffering way that 16 years of marriage can bring and then burst out laughing,” she said.
“When I explained that Hill Climb – a new game he and the girls play – was included in this ban he turned on the puppy dog eyes and began to plead! No way, mate – one in, all in.”
“When my Mum told me we were doing the challenge I didn’t like the idea because it’s hard being away from technology,” said Beatrice.
“I am sad because I want to watch TV more and movies – but I’m looking forward to spending time with my family.”
“I’M GOING TO DIE!” said 12-year-old Kate. This, clearly, was going to be fun…
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Day 1 – Friday
The first day of the challenge began with the family in a reflective mood, and re-adjusting their leisure time. It’s fair to say that friends were sceptical.
“Without a shadow of a doubt everybody I have told we are doing this has laughed hysterically,” said Elizabeth. “And then replied: ‘Good luck with that'”.
With the girls at school and both parents at work, the acid test of the challenge lay in the evening ahead. Usually, Friday evenings in the household would see all members immersed in their own little mobile world. Tonight, it was very different.
Kate and Beatrice passed the time by making a big show of colouring and fashion designing. David, meanwhile, sat on the sofa looking like a lost soul and itching to get his hands on his iPad.
As the opening day drew to a close it seemed that the children were coping rather better than Mum and Dad, with Kate adopting a different attitude to her initial reaction.
“When I was first told about this challenge I was almost crying,” she said.
“It was like my world had been turned upside down and I thought that my Mum was going crazy. But then I realised that because I am always at the pool or at school that I should be okay and it would be my Mum who would suffer the most because she is addicted to social media.
“Also, my sister doesn’t get as much homework as me and she would suffer a lot. However, it means that I can’t play on my phone with all of my friends in school at lunch.
“I understand why we are doing this. It is because families are too addicted to their phones and really don’t do as much as a family. I think that by doing this my family will become closer together.”
Positive thoughts, then. But what will the weekend bring?
Day 2, Saturday
The weekend arrived and the reality of what she had taken on hit Elizabeth – hard.
“I am a social media addict,” she confessed, sombrely.
“I love Facebook and Twitter, and it’s my primary way of keeping in touch with friends and getting news. I can’t watch Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway without messaging my best friend and sharing the giggles, and it’s the Six Nations and the England game tonight.”
With a sense of all that they would miss out on, the family made a decision – to leave the house and go out for the day.
They headed to Hunstanton, on the north Norfolk coast. A visit to the Sea Life Centre and the seaside would surely blow away any symptoms of the digital drought.
During the car journey, old family favourites took precedence over iPads and movie DVDs – I Spy and bingo reigned supreme, and Sat Nav was banned.
“All of us were happy and content,” said Elizabeth. “I got the occasional twitch to check social media, but had buried my phone so far into my bag it was impossible to get it out without being seen!”
At the Sea Life Centre, the family – free of any distractions – made the absolute most of their visit. Beatrice and Elizabeth spent time looking at starfish and crabs – Beatrice held a black velvet crab – and spoke at length to one of the volunteers about how they feed and walk.
“It felt as if we shared something special,” said Elizabeth.
They fed seals, fed penguins, looked at sharks and rays. The girls then raced to a quad bike ride and raced other around the track, laughing and smiling all the time.
“This is the best day ever,” Beatrice yelled.
“Can we come to seaside every week please?” shouted Kate.
The rest of the day is, equally, a success with a fish and chip supper and a bracing stroll along the promenade. In fact, all in all, it was a wonderful day – until the drive home.
“One word…. Armageddon,” said David.
“Two overtired children, no iPads to distract them. They essentially fought all the way home; constant fighting and shouting to the extent that we wanted to stop the car and make them walk the rest of the way.
“Without tech to entertain them, it was a hideous experience. The lovely relaxed feelings just flew straight out of the window as we stopped them killing each other.
“We got home in one piece, drank hot chocolate and the girls admitted they were tired so they took themselves off to bed and fell asleep straight away. No messaging, nothing. Just deep, peaceful sleep.”
Day 3 – Sunday
After the excitement and the sea air of the day before, the family opted for a slower pace Sunday morning. But, instead of chilling out in front of the television and gazing at their mobiles and tablets, the Garners ate brunch together.
David and Elizabeth browsed through the newspaper and various magazine supplements and the girls each drew a picture of the beach – clearly still buzzing from the Hunstanton trip.
“Because we weren’t preoccupied with catching up with the online world, we were all happy to sit, chat and really enjoyed this time together,” said David.
“I can’t remember the last time we had a proper, Sunday breakfast and weren’t dashing off as soon as we’d eaten. It was also lovely to see Kate sitting and drawing with her little sister. Bea was chuffed to bits.”
The weather was mild enough to get outside again, so the Garners donned coats and headed for a local nature reserve.
There, they spent a good couple of hours strolling around the lakes. Kate and Beatrice had brought their bikes along, so they went whizzing off for a while, leaving Mum and Dad to indulge in a bit of ‘dog spotting’.
“We want a dog – I say we but David is not so sure – so at any given opportunity I always point out ones I like to try and change his mind,” said Elizabeth. “Walking a dog would get all of us out more. I think I’m winning him over slowly!”
Back home, and after a filling roast dinner, everyone was content to spend some time on their own, reading.
“I have to say, no-one really missed their usual tech fixes,” said Elizabeth. “After such an active afternoon and full bellies it was nice just to sit and switch off.”
Day 4 – Monday
Elizabeth and Kate were up at 4.30am for swim training – Kate swims for the no.1 club in the county.
“This is a time when I know my tech habit is completely out of control,” said Elizabeth.
“I always check emails and log on to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn while she is training. I check it in the car while we are waiting for the pool to open and check it constantly while I wait for her.
“There is really no need to do this. So this particular morning, my phone stayed switched off and in my bag. Instead, we talked about her new training schedule and how we need to balance swimming, school, sleep and food.
“As neither of us were distracted by our phones we actually listened to each other and agreed the best way to go forward.”
Without her usual information sources, Elizabeth reverted to listening to the radio and another provider of news.
“I bought a newspaper,” she said.
“This is the first time I realised that Scotland beat France the night before, making England Six Nations champions. It’s the first time in years I have read the news first in a newspaper and not on Twitter. It’s very old fashioned. I relish every word but feel so disappointed I missed it all.”
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Afterwards, the usual school/work routine resumed. Elizabeth’s work colleagues kept telling her to put her phone down whenever temptation peaked, while Kate’s best friend at school policed her so well that when David tried to contact her about her swimming training schedule she couldn’t be reached. Her phone was turned off.
For Elizabeth, emotions were mixed.
“I drove home feeling despondent and really wanted to curl up on the sofa and watch TV,” she said.
“The thought of not being able to do it almost brought me to tears. Plus, I was really missing ‘talking’ to my friends on social media. The evening stretched before me feeling very dull.”
That changed the moment she walked through the front door.
“I walked in at home and Beatrice was hoovering the lounge and had tidied up. This burst of unprompted activity (never heard of before) was all down to the fact she was so excited to have my undivided attention to play board games that she wanted to make everything lovely.”
Beatrice is obviously loving the experience, which is allowing her to do all her favourite things – board games, reading, drawing, playing outside.
“I want this to carry on forever,” she tells her parents.
Kate, meanwhile, slipped off for a three-hour swim training session. As yet, she hasn’t really felt the true force of no tech. That came on Tuesday night when she had an evening free of training…
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Day 5 – Tuesday
Ingrained habits are hard to break but at the very start of the day came a minor victory for Elizabeth, who didn’t wake up and immediately reach for her phone to check Twitter. Small steps.
There’s a bigger and more significant victory amid the hustle and bustle of the kitchen.
“We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast,” said Elizabeth.
“There was no shouting, no screaming. It was calm. Normally my voice is on a loop, bellowing: ‘Face, teeth, shoes and swim hat….’ Today, all those things are done and appear. The TV isn’t on either. Maybe, just maybe, this is working…”
Breakfast was spent talking about how the family will spend their non-tech night. Kate elected to bake cakes and telephones (instead of sending a text message!) Grandma for help. Grandma was delighted, naturally.
Beatrice pulls every board game out, plus the entire Roald Dahl collection. Her expectations are high!
The evening was indeed lovely, with the family baking cakes and playing board games. The mood changed – not for the first time – once the girls had gone to bed.
“We found we really just wanted to relax with TV, iPad and our usual comforts,” said David. “Both of us had massive problems with this. I hate not scrolling through news on Twitter; we both miss watching box sets on Netflix. It’s how we relax.”
Elizabeth agreed. “We love the increased focus on family time but we are really missing tech in the post 8-9pm ‘me time’ slot. We went to bed grumpy and woke up grumpy.”
Day 6 – Wednesday
Grumpy or not, in the morning Elizabeth felt invigorated during her commute to work.
“My head felt less cluttered,” she said. “I haven’t read Facebook and thus I am free from all the white noise on there. I love social media, really I do, but I let it overtake ‘real life’.”
Analysis of her phone usage confirmed her reliance – 40% on Facebook, 25% on Twitter. The realisation that she needs to cut back a bit is accepted and embraced.
However, on this, the sixth and final day of the challenge, it was all a little too much. Elizabeth and David both scoured news sites at work like ‘junkies’ and in the evening, again when the girls had gone to bed, the digital itch lurked.
This time, they conceded and watched an episode of The Night Manager. The difference was that as soon as the show finished, the television was turned off. That’s a step forward at least – previously it would have stayed on, idly playing in the background.
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Day 7 – Thursday
“It’s amazing how quickly things become habits,” said Elizabeth. “By Thursday it had begun to feel very much part of the daily routine and we’d all already started to adjust to the new lifestyle.”
The day passed as previous normal work and school days had. Both girls were now well practised in going without television and gadgets when they returned home from school; Kate played Top Trumps and Game of Life with her sister – and Bea lapped up the attention from her older sibling.
As the end of the day, and the experiment, neared, the whole family reflected on their tech-free week, and on lessons learned.
Challenge over – and conclusions
It’s been a difficult few days for the family, who have all had to make significant changes to their lifestyle and habits.
Surprisingly, perhaps, it wasn’t the girls who found life toughest.
“I found it hardest,” confessed Elizabeth. “Putting the phone away is hard, and stepping away from social media is hard, too. But it’s really beneficial to get balance back in your life.”
“I missed most talking to my best friend,” said Kate. “Even though we go to school together and also swim in the same squad, we message each other all the time and I felt a bit out of the loop of knowing what was going on.
“We share jokes, talk about training, school and homework a lot and I missed all of that. But I really enjoyed having undivided time with my Mum and Dad, and all of us eating together.”
Beatrice found it easiest. “I loved it and would happily live this like forever!” she said. “I’d like more days out. And I felt calmer without the TV on all the time.”
As for David, although he found the experiment ‘okay’, he confessed that: “I was overjoyed to be reunited with my iPad.”
Overall, it was a valuable experience for the whole family – and Elizabeth has pledged to make some permanent changes.
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Inspired not only by her six days of digital freedom but also the likes of Ruby Wax and Sara Cox, both of whom have limited the use of tech in the family home, she is looking for an improved life balance.
“We’re already planning how to achieve a greater degree of balance,” she said.
“Our new rules include no TV in the morning; no iPad/mobile/social media in the morning; no TV/iPad use until after dinner and we’re going to switch the internet off after 8pm each night. We’re also not going to have more than one hour of social media in the evening.”
The overall conclusion is that balance is the key. Technology offers us all huge benefits and enhances our enjoyment of life in ways that would have seemed impossible 20 years ago; our children have never known a world without Wi-Fi.
Provided we don’t let it completely take over our lives, and don’t neglect quality time together, tech can always be a positive.
The Garner family were challenged to spend a week without tech by AO – who have been encouraging parents to ditch the iPad for a while to enjoy traditional messy play.