In Colorado Springs, Colo., I searched high and low for a family "crazy" enough to go cold turkey off media and entertainment technology. One couple finally stepped up to take the "media fast" challenge we'd devised (some would say diabolically) here at Plugged In. The rules were simple, but hard to follow: Observe, document and assess the media your family consumes and the entertainment technology it utilizes over the course of one week. Then spend three weeks "going analog" to learn what happens when people unplug themselves and experience life without the constant drone of the TV, hum of the computer or siren's song of Nintendo.
Shane and Jennifer Weeks did just that with their three boys. In a 21st-century world that's constantly attached to a device or entranced by a screen, what might such an experiment teach you and yours? More to the point here, what did it teach the Weeks family?
Meredith Whitmore: So, Shane and Jennifer, tell me about your media/tech fasting experience!
Jennifer Weeks: The first week it was almost exciting because it made us come together as a family in preparation for what we were going to do. Shane and I rushed out to buy new games for the kids so we would be doing something together. We played all week. It was fun, and we weren't really missing anything media related. But around midweek I wished I could check Facebook. I did very well not to, even though I could have, but I felt left out of friends' email conversations. And when they tried to include me, they couldn't really understand why I was trying to do the fast.
Meredith: Shane, you've been very dependent on your phone for work purposes. Did you manage to use it less and set aside some time for just family fun?
Shane Weeks: Well, we do set aside family time, and the only time I usually check my phone is at night.
Jennifer: Yes, but I could still feel the difference of having him be more "present." If his phone rang, I knew he would have to answer it, but it seemed like he finished the conversation faster. He wasn't stuck on it as long. I think there were more times when he and I would be sitting together and I'd think, Wow. We're both free to just talk or do whatever we'd like. I also wondered what we might be doing instead of talking if we were allowing media use as usual.
Meredith: What happened after that first week?
Jennifer: The second week we went cold turkey rather than tapering off, as we had been at first. I got very angry and ready to quit. The first week it had been something new and fun. But as time wore on, I started to wonder why we'd ever questioned if our media use was so wrong to begin with. I also wondered how much media we'd revert to using again after the fast. I missed Facebook. As a stay-at-home mother, I missed communicating with my friends during the day. We email to see how much laundry we've done just to get through the week and laugh! It's fun and encouraging, and it helps me to feel less isolated. I mean, I don't want our kids to use media all day, and I don't want to be on it all the time, but nothing about this fast told us we need to quit using it altogether. Everything in moderation, I started thinking.
The kids were actually OK because we were playing games and having fun. But Shane and I began to realize how much more time they were taking from us because they didn't have use of the TV and the Wii, which are both things they can do without us. They needed us to help them play all of the board games. It took so much more time from us than what they had normally needed in the past that I was overwhelmed. I think that's why the second week I was exhausted. I wasn't getting any time for myself, and with four kids coming and going, you've got to have—
Jennifer: Yes! You have to have downtime, and instead it was constantly, "Mom, I'm bored, what do I do now?" I was trying to get all of my other work done, too, so I was tired as I gave them a lot more of my energy.
Meredith: Do you think that would have gotten better with time, as they got used to using less media? And couldn't you leave them to their own devices at times?
Shane: It probably would have gotten better. But the oldest are 6 and 8. Their own devices are a risk.
Jennifer: They went old school and started using their blocks a lot more. They were very creative. They'd build contraptions and they'd say, "Mom! It's a dog," when it looked nothing like a dog. But they were building robots or whatever else when there was nothing else to do. They even went crazy over their old toys. Without media they definitely went back to their old favorite things.
Shane: We found that a lot of times when they didn't have TV or Wii they would read more. We'd read to them at first, but then they started reading on their own.
Jennifer: We bought a few new books for them. We're big readers and we want to share our passion with our children. Whenever they got bored, I'd say, "Go grab a book!" By the third and fourth week, they did it automatically.
Meredith: But did the kids still feel deprived?
Shane: Yeah, because you know kids of that age. TV and video games are what they like to do. That's what their friends are into. It's what they all talk about, so our kids definitely felt deprived. But it didn't kill them, and it even helped them. The first day we went back to using media after the fast we let them play to their hearts' content. But then we put some new rules in place for what they can and cannot do. There is now no Nintendo or TV during the week. If having less media is going to help them continue to read like they were during the fast, then that's what we want them to do.
The other battle you have to fight while abstaining from media is your kids' schoolwork. Our kids came home from class and said they had a website the teachers told them to use to practice math. Of course we allowed it, but—
Jennifer: It was just funny because we looked at each other and realized that we can't escape media!
Meredith: Was that the most surprising thing you learned through this fast?
Jennifer: I think what I learned is how much more we could have been doing as a family with the kids. I don't think we were ever really so out of control that we let our kids use media all day long, but the fast did help me to see that we could be doing even more together. We do set aside some family time, but we could set aside even more because the kids really thrive off of that. The fast made me see that—and, Wow! The kids have been ready to be with us, and maybe we've missed this window of opportunity up until now. They aren't babies anymore. They're old enough to play grown-up games and be with us. And before that time goes by, you know that as a parent, you have to make some behavioral changes for your family and keep those changes.
We don't live in the Stone Age. We all grew up with technology. So how do you take something away that's become integral? Still, I want to challenge myself to cut back on computer time.
Shane: See, for me, it wasn't the computer. It was TV and the radio. I listen to talk radio, but after driving in silence for a while, I find that now, when I do turn it on, the background noise has become annoying. I end up turning it off! The more time I have to drive now, the more time I have to think in silence. Or talk to the kids when they're in the car with me.
Meredith: What would you say to other families or individuals who want to do a media fast?
Shane: Try it. Hands down. There's nothing in media that can't be replaced with conversation or books or different things like that. You have to find your balance for it since, of course, some things in life require the use of technology. But we are of the opinion that, while we like some media time, we realize that left unchecked it will affect the boys as they get older. When they become teenagers, media becomes more TV, music, movies and the next generation of computers that will be developed in 10 years. As a parent, you have to bring your children back down to earth and place boundaries on media usage.
Jennifer: Yes, and we'll lose our influence, too, the older they get. We won't be able to direct them as easily. I'm happy we can catch them now to show them before they're 18 and say, "I'll do what I want, Mom. I'll watch TV all day long if I want." No, we are hoping and trying to show them a better way.
For moms who work, a media fast might not be so difficult. But as a stay-at-home mom, I felt cut off from other moms since I can't get out to see people easily. That's when media becomes a lifeline for me. It was easier when Shane was home to share the burden. Overall, though, I'm glad and thankful we did it! I'd definitely tell others to try it too. And in a few years, when I've forgotten the hard parts, I'll probably do it again. It's a little like childbirth that way!
Read Weighing in on Tech's Weight, the first article in this mini-series on tech and media fasts.