Is your family's digital diet out of control? Mark Ellis explains what happened when he began 'tech-free Sundays'
Smartphones and the attention they demand from us is the plague of modern living.
From the digital native millennials to their baby boomer parents, no one is immune. The last 20 years has seen an unprecedented take-up of mobile phones. In 1996 only 16 per cent of households had one. But within ten years the figure had jumped to 79 per cent. Today, 95 per cent of homes own at least one mobile phone. That’s more than the 93 per cent of us who own microwaves!
But unlike the kitchen appliance that sits passively waiting for use, the mobile phone demands our constant attention. And we are usually more than willing to oblige. Recent research found that one in three UK adults check their phones in the middle of the night. Instant messaging and social media were listed as the most popular activities. One in ten smartphone owners confessed to grabbing their phone as soon as they woke up, rising to a third checking it within five minutes of waking. Around a tenth admitted to using their phones “always” or “very often” while eating, both at home and in restaurants.
The Christian response
Should Christians give up the temptation of technology? I know families that have, but it’s certainly not for my family. We think it’s necessary to live in the world we inhabit, not outside of it. We have to be a part of society and not stand on the sidelines trying to throw clogs into the machines of change.
Three years ago we decided to give up the internet for one day a week. Why? Because one Sunday I looked around and the whole family were on their gadgets – each in their own little world – and I had a ‘Dad moment’, marching into the hall, disconnecting the internet, switching off the computers and removing all the phones, tablets and gadgets I could get my hands on.
There are six in our family. My wife Caroline and I have four children – Ben (18), Gabriel (15), Jessica (13) and Noah (7). When I cancelled technology for the day I was expecting a little ‘fallout’, but nothing like the cataclysmic tantrums that followed.
We’ve got three years of experience at this now. With almost 200 Digital Detox days under our belt since our shaky start, we’re a whole lot closer as a family than we used to be – and healthier, happier, safer and smarter too.
As a parent, I know I set an example, and as a society we’re causing a cycle of neglect by teaching children that they have to compete with gadgets for attention, all the while providing the illusion that having a smartphone is necessary for survival.
Of all our family, I was probably the most addicted to the internet. This is something I had trouble facing up to until one morning when I was preparing for a business trip to Germany and my phone requested an update.
As I collected my bags and placed them in the car, I returned to get the phone only to find that the update hadn’t worked properly and I’d lost all my apps, games and emails. I’d love to say I responded calmly and rationally, but I threw a shouty fit worthy of a hormonal
I was addicted to the internet
My tickets for the flight were lost. So were my email instructions for the taxi, the hotel directions, my e-books and my news and weather. How could I cope without these things?! Running madly to my laptop I printed out the flight tickets, went back to the car and started the hour-long drive to the airport while continuing my tantrum.
Retrospectively, it was a truly embarrassing episode. I was shaking, yelling and stressed when the reality was that my laptop had all the information I needed. My smartphone was reduced to the role of telephone for a couple of days but the world had not stopped turning.
The fallout from that first Sunday when I switched everything off confirmed my fears that I wasn’t the only addict in the family. But with the gadgets placed into a box and the internet router unplugged we had to find a way to distract everyone from their withdrawal symptoms, and made a list of the things that we could do that didn’t involve technology. We came up with lots of good options, including: cinema, swimming, cycling, gardening, church and pub.
What about church?
Church for us starts at 10:30am, and runs for around an hour and a half depending on the mood of the band, the congregation and the amount of cake served afterwards. It’s tough to catch up on Facebook and sing at the same time, so church makes for an excellent, mindful, tech-free start to the day – and without the gadget temptations at home we actually get more of the family joining us.
Most of the time I leave church feeling challenged and thoughtful. I walk out appreciating the fact that I took a few hours out from the day to focus on my spiritual well-being. But before we started our internet-free diet I couldn’t wait to grab hold of the phone and start catching up on the virtually connected world. The rest of the family would typically follow, and before long we would have lost the unity that church brought about and all be pursuing our own interests.
As Christians, we know we need to listen to hear God’s voice but the noise of life works against that. The modern term for this inner quiet is ‘mindfulness’, and there are huge mental health benefits to focusing on your inner thoughts and keeping the outside world at bay for a time.
A few years ago, at a service in St George’s Chapel Windsor, we heard a sermon about social media. One thing the priest said stuck with me: “We are so focused on managing how we appear to the outside world that we forget how important it is to focus on our true, inner self and our relationship with God.”
As Christians we are meant to focus on our internal relationship with God, and expressing that in thought, word and deed. Prayer, contemplation, reading and mindfulness underwrite an attitude to others which should be in line with the positive messages of our faith.
So, did we give up the gadgets every week and take a tech-sabbath just for godly reasons? No. Our motivation was a great deal more selfish, dictatorial and parental.
We recognised that the amount of time that the children were spending online had formed an addiction, and no parent wants to encourage that. But most of us tolerate it as part of the modern world – we accept that there is no choice, that the internet is a life skill, essential for our survival.
We don’t want our children to be the outcasts at school. When I was growing up there was a family near us who didn’t have a TV because they felt it was a damaging influence. But in my view the absence of social touch points actually had a negative effect on their ability to relate to their peers.
As adults we have a choice about what food we consume but we choose to ignore our inner 10-year-old’s wish to live on a diet of sweets and lemonade. Instead, we know that moderation is the key to a healthy and fulfilled life. We enforce this moderation on our children. If we saw our children ballooning in size we would hopefully step in and do something about it.
So why do we stand by and allow this unfettered addiction to the internet? Our desire to fit in with society gives rise to the compulsion for the latest smartphone and a decent data plan. This in turn feeds our hunger, and the more we do things that we like (like indulge in technology) the more we want to do it. Our natural curiosity amplifies this, and before we know it, we’re part of a mental arms race to do more, see more and search for that ‘bigger hit’.
By accepting that I was addicted to the internet, it became easier to see that the children were heading down the same route, and neither Caroline nor I wanted that to get any worse. So the gadgets go away at night and all day on Sundays – and this teaches us that we can manage without them, and that makes it easier to resist the addiction.
Back to basics
Without the internet, it’s amazing how creative things get in our house. A few weeks ago Jessica decided that we should all go for a picnic, and baked scones all morning, which we packed together with some jam and cream, a picnic blanket, some lemonade (and a bottle of Prosecco) and headed off for an afternoon at Cliveden House.
Our family’s National Trust and Blenheim Palace cards are the best investments we ever made. We take lots of fantastic photos on our phones to remember the day by, but we don’t share them right away. We stay in the moment, and post some for our family to see the following day instead.
Caroline has been designing circular walk and children’s adventure booklets on behalf of the Chipping Norton Deanery – local villagers have designed some short rambles around Chipping Norton, Charlbury, Hook Norton and beyond – and we’ve been exploring new places and boosting our step counts as a family too.
Thanks to the booklets, we haven’t needed to use the phone as a mapping device, and we’ve also managed to dig out some old Ordinance Survey maps to teach the children some basic orienteering skills. (I realise this sounds a little ‘Famous Five’, but climbing over trees, streams and hedges together is a lot of fun, and does make finding new pubs that bit more rewarding!)
Bad weather doesn’t make outdoor pursuits that attractive on some days, so we’ve put a back-up plan in place to avoid the inevitable “I’m bored” chorus. These are the days when we have to be extra creative. The board games come into their own, and although playing Monopoly or Risk is not always conflict-free, we’ve found some great alternatives such as Ticket to Ride which, when coupled with a gin and tonic makes a great way to spend an afternoon.
All our weekend jobs get done faster too – asking the children to mow the lawn, collect the eggs, walk the dog or empty the dishwasher is met with a lot less resistance – and we only have to ask once instead of competing with the gadgets for attention.
And we have exceptions too. While the internet is off limits for personal use, if we all decide to watch a film together then we’ll stream one to the TV – but ‘together’ is key. Given the chance, the children used to binge watch whatever they liked,
wherever they liked; one would be in the kitchen watching Transformers, another in the living room watching Heartland on Netflix and another one with a tablet watching YouTube.
We’ve noticed huge benefits within our family. We’ve seen a lot less stereotypical teenage behaviour, improved social skills, an increase in grades at school, boosted creativity and an improvement in both physical and mental health.
We feel closer to God. We’re sleeping better. And as a family we are mentally and physically healthier. The addiction is now broken. But it wasn’t an easy journey, which is why I wrote Digitox – to help others with the same challenges that we faced.
We should be encouraged that Jesus’ death and resurrection has not only conquered sin and death but also the grip temptation has over us. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 10:13, ‘God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure’ (NLT).
Mark Ellis is a tech industry veteran of 20 years and the author of Digitox - a book designed to make you and your family happier, healthier, safer and smarter in a society that increasingly demands constant, unsustainable attention. He is a cofounder of Red Trouser Day, a charity raising money for bowel cancer research and a co-founder of FLTR coffee, a not for profit coffee shop in the heart of a local housing development. digitoxbook.com