In the spring of 2009, California-based writer Sharael Kolberg did the math and estimated that she spent four months of her year using some form of entertainment technology — whether watching TV or surfing the Internet.
So Kolberg, 44, proposed a bold plan to her husband, a marketing executive, and their 5-year-old daughter: rid their home of all technology, from TV and phones to the Internet and digital cameras, for one full year. The result is Kolberg’s newly released book, “A Year Unplugged: A Family’s Life Without Technology”.
“We went back to the ‘80s, basically. I got out my record player and typewriter, we used the phone book and paper maps,” Kolberg said. “It enhanced our relationships with our friends and family. Technology takes that away from us.”
Kolberg’s unplugging experiment is something many Americans can’t do when so much of work and personal life are conducted online. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 62 percent of employers expect frequent mobile technology use and contact with employees. In the same poll, 63 percent of employees reported that they checked their email after work hours frequently and worked remotely seven hours or more per week.
But as Americans become increasingly dependent on technology, evidence of the negative impacts of too much screen time on both adults and kids continues to mount. In the same 2014 Gallup poll, employees who worked remotely and checked their email outside of work reported higher levels of stress than those who didn’t.
Even more troubling: a European study last year of children ages 2-6 linked increased screen time to emotional problems, lower self-esteem, lack of sleep and an overall adverse effect on family function.
There are physical impacts, too. In 2013, a study published in the journal Pediatrics linked screen time to childhood obesity. More recently, the Washington Post reported on a new phenomenon the National Library of Medicine calls “text neck,” or the accelerated wear and tear on the spine due to looking down at a phone for extended periods of time.
But Washington, D.C. leadership coach and author Kristi Hedges says achieving balance is simpler than most think.
“We have a lot more power in these situations than we think we do,” Hedges said. “When we hit that hard wall and say, I can’t do this anymore, all kinds of doors can open up for us.”
Screen time not only affects people’s health, says Beverly Hills family psychotherapist and author Fran Walfish, it also affects relationships.
“The biggest loss is human to human connectedness and bonding and attachments. It’s the greatest loss of all,” Walfish said.
Whether the relationship is romantic or between parent and child, Walfish says split attention results in what she calls “covert deprivation,” or the emotional deprivation someone feels when they’re not getting the attention they want.
Walfish also said that parents who split their attention constantly risk their children’s development, since research shows that babies and young children begin to learn through face-to-face interactions with their parents.
“When there is a couple and any electronic device is brought in like a computer or phone, the relationship now becomes a triangle and it always results in someone feeling neglected,” Walfish said. “It’s the price we’ve paid for electronics.”
Of course, most people don’t ignore their relationships and children knowingly. In many ways, says Hedges, human physiology works against the best of intentions.
“We actually get a dopamine rush when we get an email or a text and dopamine rushes are stronger when they’re intermittent rather than constant,” Hedges said. “Email is exactly that — an intermittent reward.”
Cape Cod, Massachusetts, writer, technology consultant and mother of five Janell Burley Hofmann says if people can overcome their natural urge for that chemical rush, they stand to get an even bigger reward.
“What happens is we start filling in all the space with technology, we have the potential to miss the small but meaningful things — like a conversation with your spouse,” Hofmann, 35, said. “These precious minutes are at stake here that we might miss if technology is filling up every corner of our lives.”
The great pause
All of this new knowledge about the ramifications of screen time has resulted in what Hofmann calls “The Great Pause” — a time when Americans are taking stock of time spent on devices and re-evaluating what matters.
“Every generation faces some challenge like this, but mobile technology crept up on us and became so mainstream so quickly that we’re now playing catch up,” Hofmann said. “We’re finally stopping and asking ourselves what we want from these devices.”
Hofmann says it’s essential for parents especially to look at their own relationships with technology and make adjustments before making family policies and educating themselves about technology their kids use to make confident decisions.
“When my oldest got his smartphone at 13, I was afraid it would be the most important thing to him,” Hofmann said. “But parents know how to set boundaries and they know what feels comfortable for their families.”
Parents should treat technology as a privilege like any other, Walfish said — a luxury to be earned and that can be taken away when trust is breached.
“Parents should not give kids these electronic privileges just because others have them,” Walfish said. “They should be given in exchange for good grades, good study habits, no substance use, abiding by curfews and parents should collect all devices at bedtime.”
Kolberg’s experience wasn’t all roses. During the experiment, her husband, who holds down a demanding marketing job, still had to use his laptop after work hours from time to time, which meant he had to leave the house during their unplugged year. Kolberg’s daughter, a big “Hannah Montana” fan, kept up a consistent protest against the absence of TV.
For Kolberg, the most difficult times came from suppressing her urge to document her daughter’s milestones online — like her sixth birthday, ballet recitals and her kindergarten graduation.
“I left the house that morning (for the graduation) really sad,” Kolberg said. “But when we got there, there was a woman sitting in front of me who had a video camera in one hand and a still camera in the other and it really hit me that I was able to take in the moment and relish it rather than living to capture it on film.”
While Kolberg knows not everyone can unplug for a year as she did, she said people can make small changes that will be highly beneficial for the whole family.
“It’s hard to say no to our kids, but sometimes we have to do it for their own good,” Kolberg said. “We’re much more conscious about our technology use now. I’m living proof that people can live without it.”
Whether a family has one child, like Kolberg’s, or five children like Hofmann’s, parents should just concentrate on coming up with a screen time policy that fits their family best.
“No one knows your family better than you,” Hofmann said. “Some of the most important parenting we can do is coming back to what we already now: Our values.”