Author Susan Maushart on Pulling the Plug on Her Family’s Technology
Imagine your life if you didn’t have access to the Internet, a computer, a television or even an iPod. Now imagine that you did this to yourself willingly. While most people would call author Susan Maushart crazy for embarking on six full months of screen-free living, the results of her “Experiment” are eye-opening. She details her family’s often funny and insightful journey in THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONNECT: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale), to be published by Tarcher/Penguin January 20. Below is her take on the experience.
Why did you decide to pull the plug on everything electronic in your home?
The short answer is simply that I was worried about my kids – how they seemed to be living their lives “screened,” literally, from what my son with no irony whatsoever called RL (Real Life). To be honest, I wasn’t that far behind them. My relationship with my iPhone had all the intensity of an illicit affair. I even gave it a pet name and started buying it outfits … And then I re-read Walden, my favorite book in the universe, and that experience – plus the fact that I was menopausal (lol!) – pretty much pushed me over the edge. You know how you’re not ready to go to re-hab ‘til you reach rock bottom? Well, we’d reached it. It was a case of desperate times calling for desperate measures.
Did you forbid every type of technology including TV?
Well, for the first two weeks we had no electricity or power AT ALL. But that was just bootcamp – to limber us up for the battle ahead. Once we switched the power back on, we were allowed radio and our stereos and of course appliances. What we were not allowed was TV, DVDs, Internet, computers of any kind, smartphones, or iPods. Basically, if it had a screen, it was off limits.
Did you try to limit your family’s technology use before the experiment or was it cold turkey?
Yes, I’d tried. And failed. And tried, and failed, and tried, and failed. At predictable intervals, I’d blow a fuse and either pull the modem out of the wall, or attempt to impose some rational boundaries. Two hours of Internet a day (for three kids, while I’m working full time? You do the math. The surveillance was a killer). Or no Internet past 9 pm. (“But Mom, I’ve got hoooooooooooomewooooooooooooork!!”) When we’d have dinner parties with other families, I’d sometimes collect all the kids’ cellphones into a big basket and switch off the modem … and that was partly what inspired me to do the big disconnect.
Watching the kids interact and play games (even the older teenagers) was such a buzz – and in some ways almost shocking. (Strapping sixteen-year-olds playing hide-and-seek? Lololol!) It’s so easy to forget what’s normal and natural.
Did you set out to prove what a significant impact technology has on the family?
I don’t think I set out to “prove” anything really – more to explore the possibilities. Having said that, I did have a strong hunch that there was a – for want of a better word – disconnect in the way we were communicating. We were so totally connected, yet so worryingly dis-connected. I was also really, really, REALLY curious to test out whether being online 24/7 was essential to my kids’ learning, as they had always protested, or just a scam to get more time chatting with friends, buying stuff on eBay, watching catch-up TV, downloading music, etc. As far as the impact on childhood development goes, I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that question – I certainly don’t – but I don’t think there’s a parent alive who isn’t interested in it, and probably worried about it. To be honest, what we experienced during our six-months of digital de-tox made me wish I’d worried about it more, and much, much sooner.
How did your children do their homework and how did you do your work?
The ban was only in effect in our house (also our car). The kids were able to access the Internet at school, for example, and at friends’ houses. The weird thing was, their friends wanted to hang out with us! The novelty value of a home where “hanging out” meant talking, listening to music, playing board games, cooking and making up idiotic and wildly fun games proved irresistible. Go figure…
I did without any screens at all for two and a half months, writing my columns by hand – my blood runs cold just remembering that! – keeping my journal in an actual journal, going to the library for books with actual covers, reading the kind of newspaper that left my fingers inky, etc. After that point, I worked from an office with a computer and an Internet connection, and in The Winter of Our Disconnect I describe how nearly delirious I was that first day.
What was the most challenging part of the experiment?
For me, I think it was the sense that my wings had been clipped: that I couldn’t live “elsewhere” anymore (via my homepage [The New York Times], or my NPR podcasts, or eBay, or Amazon), that I had to BE in Western Australia. That killed me – and, eventually, was the making of me, in the form of the huge life choice to return to the US. Not being able to look stuff up was incredibly frustrating at the start (I kept long lists of things I wanted to Google). And once it got cold, I think we all missed the coziness of eating pizza in front of a blazing DVD! The kids I think struggled with boredom – especially in the early weeks. (That was part of my evil plan: I WANTED them to experience boredom, and then to experience taking responsibility for alleviating it in more self-reliant, novel, creative ways …) My youngest did find some of her friends dropped off. Being offline was a pretty good litmus test for friendship. We all HATED having to write stuff in longhand. Oh, and I did get a phone bill one month for over a thousand bucks. That was challenging.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from the experiment? And your kids?
My biggest lesson was that I have a responsibility as a parent, and as a person, to use media deliberately. To make conscious, informed choices instead of throwing up my hands because “it’s all too hard.” I am not a Luddite. I love my technology, and I regard it as a huge privilege to be living in the midst of an information explosion. But, as critic Neil Postman reminds us, information explosions blow things up. It’s essential to use media, of course. It’s equally essential to use media critically, and with an awareness of our how our habits of mind, of heart, and, yes, even of homework are being shaped. My kids learned to take responsibility for their own boredom – and by extension for their lives. They were appalled to discover what a time-suck their various media habits had become. And, like me, they experienced firsthand the power of making choices about media. Thoreau said he went to the woods to learn to live more deliberately. We went into the digital wilderness to do exactly the same.