Unplugging for the Holidays, for Your Family's Health

family on ipad
Source: Alex Dummer

While the holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and family, they can also cause a feeling of overwhelm: A 2011 report from the American Psychological Association found that 22 percent of Americans experience an “extreme level” of stress during the holidays.

While the other 78 percent don’t feel such high levels of anxiety, the holidays can be hectic for many. And, says Dr. Mari Swingle, a psychoneurophysiologist, doctor of psychology, and author of the book i-Minds: How Cell Phones, Computers, Gaming, and Social Media are Changing our Brains, our Behavior, and the Evolution of Our Species (New Society Publishers, 2016) our dependence on technology may be exacerbating that lack of calm. 

Swingle says one aspect that draws people to the Internet-connected devices she calls “i-tech” (like PCs, laptops, tablets, or phones) is their unpredictable loop of anticipation (What’s popping up next on my social media feed?) and gratification (Oh, look, a new comment on my blog).

She says that by keeping ourselves stimulated by screens constantly, our ability to quiet and calm ourselves is going the way of the dodo.

“We no longer know what to do to settle ourselves, hence the augment in anxiety, depression, and in other forms of addiction,” she writes. “We are glued to our devices in an attempt to stay occupied, to entertain ourselves, to defer emotions. Yet by the very fact of doing so, we are feeling more agitated and void.” 

Holiday vacations may be the perfect time to “detox” yourself and your family from electronic devices, says Swingle. Instead of being glued to a screen, make a real effort to put those screens away and spend time interacting with loved ones. You may have a more relaxing season, form more precious memories with loved ones, and start breaking bad, hyper-connected habits—even before it’s time for New Year’s resolutions.

Unplugging even for a few days can have a big impact. A 2014 study from UCLA Children’s Digital Media Center compared sixth graders who went into nature for five days with no screens to kids who stayed home and did their normal tech-centered routines. It found that the kids who stayed plugged in were worse at reading facial expressions and emotional cues than the kids who’d had a break.
And a 2014 study from University of California-Irvine tested stress levels for workers before and after a five-day e-mail break. The results? Lower heart rates overall and workers reported they felt more in control of their work lives. This study wasn’t even done during a full technology break; it just required people to talk to their coworkers face-to-face.

Set a Good Example

A good time to launch new tech-lite habits could be when you have consecutive days off of work during the holidays. But before you can get others in your household to unplug, make sure you’re modeling good habits.

As many as 70 percent of children think their parents spend more time than they should using tech devices, which kids see as a double-standard, according to psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Child and Family Relationships in the Digital Age (Harper, 2013).

“Kids hate the phrase ‘just checking’ that parents frequently use to justify a very rude, infuriating behavior,” she said to the New York Times of parents who constantly check their phone or e-mail.  

Setting boundaries can be harder for adults, because we have to enforce them on ourselves, rather than relying on an authority figure to remind us. Here are a few things to focus on:   

Unplug after work.

Leading up to the holiday break, make a point of ditching screens for a period of time as soon as you walk in the door from work or school. 

“Walk in the door unplugged, and use the first hour you’re home as time to reconnect with the family,” Steiner-Adair told the Times. 

Try dropping your devices off in a designated spot before proceeding to the rest of your evening. During big holiday dinners, encourage guests to do the same.

Don’t make yourself constantly available via gadgets.

For example, Swingle doesn’t respond to job-related e-mails after work hours unless it’s an emergency. 

Kathleen Davis, business editor at Fast Company, takes a similar approach. She downgraded to a flip phone without Internet access to limit her gadget use after hours. 

“It does start with setting expectations for everyone in your life,” she said in a video on the magazine’s website. “You really should set the expectation of ‘I am going to be unreachable. Pretend I’m on a desert island.... You cannot reach me.’”

In the video, she also talks about a woman she interviewed who had an automatic out-of-office response that said, “If it’s a true emergency, here’s my mom’s phone number.” 

Turn off your phone alerts.

The instinct to move when you hear a bell isn’t necessarily bad—think school bells or fire alarms. But if notifications are on your phone for every app and message, it’s hard to stay engaged in conversations when you hear your pocket or desk chiming. 

Turn off your alerts during the holidays, and consider leaving them off afterward. Most smartphones have settings that you can change to silence notifications—and even mute all call notices except for important numbers.

Breaking the Cycle

Once you’ve checked your own habits, it’s time to turn to the rest of your household. 

It’s not realistic to unplug everyone forever. Technology is useful, and it’s okay to have fun with it. But the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children have no more than two hours of digital time per day—with no screen time at all for kids under two. (Swingle is more conservative, recommending that parents wait to introduce tech until their children are four or six to have the least impact on development.)

If you have kids in your life, there are ways to encourage them to take a break from technology:

Keep track of your family’s tech usage—and set limits. Make a “tech hub” or central area where computers and devices live in your home—instead of letting kids bring tablets, laptops, or phones into their rooms—so you can keep a close eye on their browsing and ensure safe as well as healthy habits. 

A holiday vacation break is the perfect time to set up a tech hub and explain the rules around it. Perhaps agree as a family to limit your gadget use to two hours a day, for example, and then police each other. 

Don’t add fuel to the fire. Children are already bombarded with technology, and it’s extremely hard for them to self-regulate. Swingle recommends not buying more devices or video games for kids who already have problems being torn away from it.

Instead of the newest game or gadget, bring back old-school holiday gifts, like books, board games, sports equipment, musical instruments, or art supplies. Or, give the gift of an experience—a trip to the bookstore or tickets to a concert or a sporting event.

Physically remove temptation. You can physically enforce tech-free time at home by taking away gadgets or unplugging power strips or routers.  

Though it may seem like a paradox, there are many effective apps available to help set and enforce gadget limits. See the box above for examples.

Turn to new traditions. A tech-lite holiday might just help you develop healthy, non-tech traditions that can be carried through to the next year’s holiday or even throughout the year. You may find you enjoy regularly baking cookies or cooking meals together, for example, or a gift of a couple games could develop into a weekly game night.  

Get assistance from friends. Before your holiday vacation kicks off, Swingle recommends meeting with neighbors or adults in your community and setting up a tech-free project for your children to work on, like learning to draw, make jewelry, or play the guitar. 

You might even turn this effort into an ongoing creative co-op, where parents take turns hosting and working on a project with each other’s kids. The non-host parents get much-needed alone time, and the kids get a fun, tech-free activity.  

“Even though we all need and even want time away from screens, it can be a challenge to actually do it,” says Swingle. “All that said, it’s worth the effort. The earlier you can take back and balance real-life with screen-based activities, the better.” 

Limit-setting apps

While it might seem counter-intuitive to turn to technology for help taking a break from technology, some families swear by apps to help set and enforce gadget limits. 

For adults and older children, Breaktime ($4.99 for iOS, Android, ad PC) reminds you to take breaks from your computer or device on a schedule you set. If you or your family uses Apple devices, you can also use the built in "Screen Time" feature in the settings for a free option, although be aware that it can be easily ignored.

If you need stronger parental controls, consider Screen Time ($3.99 per month or $39.99 per year for iOS, Android, and Amazon devices) It puts timers on kids’ computers and mobile devices and has a master “pause” button for your phone that will stop activity on all devices until you un-pause it. It also allows you to set and enforce daily time limits, block activity during bedtime or school hours, and more.