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How to take a tech vacation
Making tech work for your family over the holidays
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9 min read
Ah, the holidays. The season of gathering with family, lighting crackling fires, stringing twinkling lights around the house, and sitting on the couch glued to our devices.
During many a past holiday vacation, I’ve found myself in this unfortunate position. Mindlessly refreshing emails that won’t require a response for days, scrolling through photos of friends’ families in matching holiday jammies, and watching—with great interest—live feeds of strangers’ holiday tablescapes.
So, what did I do about it? I started taking a Tech Vacation: a pre-planned, temporary break from using certain types of technology.
How did we get here?
Here’s the holiday fable version of this story: I was visited by three ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past showed me the joy I used to experience on Christmas morning, device-free, singing carols and sipping hot chocolate. The Ghost of Christmas Present depicted a terrifying vision of myself, closed off to the world, my thumbs growing numb from scrolling, while friends and family shout fruitlessly at me to turn off my device. And the Ghost of Christmas Future warned me of a lonely life ruined by technology, prioritizing phone over family, TikTok over tradition, memes over memories. From that day on, I vowed to turn off all electronic devices for the period of December 24th to January 2nd. Never again did I look at my phone while in the presence of family and friends. Maybe that’s what Christmas is really all about. God bless us, everyone (except the Instagram algorithm that has determined one of my ad interests1 to be “Zillow.” How dare you.)
But this version of the story, as you have likely noticed, is not our style here on Techno Sapiens. The reality of technology use during the holidays is far more complicated. The Ghost of Christmas Past might highlight the year I received a sparkling new bike, and spent a delightful device-free Christmas morning outside, riding it around the neighborhood in the Chicago winter cold. Yet it also might remind me of the year I was gifted the complete first season2 of The O.C.3 on DVD and spent a positively joyful Christmas binge-watching it with my brother. Christmas Present would certainly involve problematic device distraction, but it would also include texting with friends to reconnect and wish each other happy holidays, and laughing to the point of tears over a viral video watched with family. And while Christmas Future might involve distress over photos of others’ holiday jammies and perfect winter tablescapes, it might also involve happy Zoom gatherings for family that cannot be together in person.
The true version of this story is that the changes I’ve made to my device use over the holidays are nothing earth-shattering, but they are enough to minimize the ways that technology gets in the way. This is where the Tech Vacation comes in.
What is a Tech Vacation?
A Tech Vacation is simply a pause on using certain type(s) of technology, determined by you in advance. The key to a Tech Vacation is that it is personalized for you and/or your family. Let me be clear: if your family’s idea of a perfect holiday involves unlimited screen time for everyone, great! Keep doing you. If Omicron has thrown your holiday plans into a tailspin, and everyone just needs their devices to maintain a bit of sanity, that is okay. However, if you, like me, find yourself falling into a pattern that is more techno than sapien during that unstructured abyss of time without school, meetings, childcare, or any semblance of memory for what day it is, and you want to try something new this year, I have some ideas.
I’ve taken many a tech “vacation” over the past few years. I used to call it a tech “hiatus,” but this started to feel too formal. I’ve also seen the term “detox” used, but this sounds scary and reminds me of juice cleanses (even scarier). So, I’ve settled on tech “vacations” or “breaks,” which sound friendly and palatably temporary.
I’ve also used a 24-hour Tech Vacation as an assignment in my course for high school students, The Psychology of Social Media. When they first hear about it, they generally panic. Then, in their reflection papers about the experience, they write about their plans to take other tech vacations in the future.
The Data on Tech Vacations
What does the research say? Do Tech Vacations work?
As in many areas, findings are a bit mixed. For example, there’s this study, in which researchers instructed 600 young adults in the U.S. and U.K. to take a “social media abstinence” day and a normal day, and then measured how they felt at the end of each day. They found no improvement in the participants’ moods on the day without social media. They also found that only 49.5% of the participants followed their instructions (limiting social media use is hard!). Similarly, this study finds that longer periods of social media abstinence (1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-week periods) also have no effect on well-being.
But there are also studies like this one of over 1,000 Danish adults, showing that those randomly assigned to quit Facebook for a 1-week period show greater life satisfaction and positive emotions than non-quitters. And this one (creatively titled “No More FoMO”), with 143 undergrads at Penn, which shows that limiting social media use to 10 minutes per day per platform (on each of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat) reduces loneliness and depressive symptoms over 3 weeks.
What to make of this? I’d argue that the problem with these studies is that they’re not individualized. They take a group of people, tell them to stop using social media altogether, and then see what happens. This eliminates the potential benefits of social media, and does not allow for individual choice or buy-in on the process.
And this is why, I think, the key is a personalized Tech Vacation, where we set our own goals and think through the kind of tech break that would be most helpful for us or our families. That’s what I’m proposing here.
Many of the principles involved in planning for and enacting the Tech Vacation come from the basic science of behavior change: setting specific goals, creating a detailed action plan, outlining why we want to make a change, and planning for what might get in the way. These are key components of well-established therapies for addressing problematic health behaviors (e.g., substance use, smoking), which typically culminate in the creation of a detailed “change plan” to address the problematic behavior. Established programs aimed to change tech behaviors have relied on these principles too. See, for example, the Digital Habits Check-Up, a powerful activity developed for Common Sense Media by my colleagues Emily Weinstein and Carrie James, which helps students reflect on their tech habits and decide where to make changes.
How to Take a Tech Vacation
Okay, let’s talk about how to take your own tech vacation. Then we’ll discuss how to apply this in your family.
First, Decide On a Limit.
Decide on a temporary limit to some aspect of your technology use. This can be big, like no electronic device use at all (note: this will be challenging unless your holiday plans involve, say, camping out in the woods), or small, like limit Twitter scrolling to 30 minutes per day. It can be helpful to also identify the “why” here. Why do you want to set this limit? What good do you anticipate may come from it? Perhaps you’d like to be more present with family, or maybe you’d like to make time for pursuing another hobby.
Here are some examples of limits:
No social media use at all.
No phone use, except for calls and navigation.
No Instagram use from phone (from a computer is okay).
Limit TikTok use to 30 minutes per day.
Limit social media use to messaging only (no scrolling or posting).
No checking e-mail after 12pm.
No phone use while sitting on the couch.
No phone use except while on long car rides.
Video games limited to one hour per day.
Second, Set the Ground Rules.
Decide on the specifics of the limits you are setting. What sites/apps/technology will you use and not use? What times of day? What devices? How much? How long will your tech vacation last?
Here is my plan:
For at least two weeks beginning December 24, no Instagram use. Limit Twitter to once per day, for checking notifications and/or posting only (no scrolling). Continue not using any apps that I don’t normally use (Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat, etc.). Exceptions: Friends or family can show me fun/cute/entertaining social media content on their phones if desired.
No checking email December 24 or 25. For the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, limit checking email to twice per day or less, from laptop (not phone).4 Exceptions: Checking email from phone is okay on long car rides (as long as I’m not driving, obviously).
No phone use in bed. I already do this, but it’s a habit I want to maintain, even while traveling or changing schedules around the holidays.
Third, Set Yourself Up for Success.
How will you make it easier for yourself to maintain your tech vacation? This may involve setting up small “roadblocks” or reminders around your tech use. You might delete certain apps from your phone, or charge your phone outside of your bedroom at night. Maybe you’ll change your phone background to a photo that simply says NO TWITTER in large, scary letters.
You’ll also want to plan ahead for any barriers to your plan. Will you or your child be getting a new electronic device from Santa? Perhaps build in some exceptions to the limits you’re setting. Do you have a major work project that will require your immediate email responses? Perhaps set up notifications for when (and only when) you receive emails from any relevant colleagues.
Here’s what I’m doing:
Tell family and friends about my plan (see: this newsletter).
Travel with a small alarm clock, so I don’t need to use my phone. My child will serve as the actual alarm (he’s very punctual), but I like to be able to check the time while still in bed (sometimes, he’s too punctual).
Charge my phone out of reach of bed
Set an email auto-reply starting December 24
Exceptions for long car rides and friends/family showing me content (see above)
Note: I won’t delete Instagram from my phone because, when I automatically click the icon before remembering my tech vacation plan, I find it’s a good reminder to be more mindful when using my phone
Fourth, Identify Alternative Activities.
When you’re used to, say, popping open Twitter at any lull in conversation, it feels weird to not do this. It feels especially weird when your conversation partners are still doing it, leaving you staring blankly ahead, drumming your fingers on your lap. Have some ideas for what you’ll do in these moments. Depending on the nature of your tech vacation, this could involve tech or not. If your plan is to stay off Twitter, maybe you text a friend in these moments instead. If your plan is to stay off your phone altogether, maybe you strike up a new conversation, check out the neighborhood holiday decorations5, read A Christmas Carol, or listen to some holiday tunes.
How to Get Your Kids to Take a Tech Vacation
Okay, so you’re ready to take your tech vacation. Now it’s time to throw caution to the wind and suggest that your kids join in. A few tips:
Make this a collaborative exercise. Try: I’ve been thinking about how our family uses our phones during the holidays, and I’ve been considering this thing called a Tech Vacation. It can be big or small—for me, I’m going to try doing XYZ. What do you think about trying out your own?
You can even ask your kid for advice on your own Tech Vacation, to signal that this is collaborative: Do you have any suggestions for me? How do you think I should make sure that I stick to my plan?
Time it right. I would not suggest bringing this up while in the throes of an argument over screen time. You might consider raising the idea during a moment of calm, perhaps over discussion of things you’re looking forward to around the holidays (seeing family, taking a break from work/school, etc.)
Make it individualized. Each family member’s idea of a Tech Vacation will be different, and that’s okay. The key is getting buy-in, and that means letting family members decide on their own Tech Vacation plans. A key principle in behavioral change therapies is to get the other person talking. You want them to lay out what they might want to change and, critically, why they want to change it. You can make some suggestions, especially for younger kids, but you want to default to questions. Try: Is there any tech behavior you might want to try changing up over the holidays? What are some of your (non-tech) goals for the holiday break? How do you think a Tech Vacation might help with your goals? Have you ever tried a Tech Vacation before? What worked and didn’t work for you?
‘Tis the season for Tech Vacations, and I want to know how yours goes! Send me an e-mail, leave a comment, or find me on Twitter. I’ll report back on mine in a few weeks, too.
Happy holidays, everyone, and thanks for being part of this community. Here’s to finding our balance of techno and sapien this holiday season.
If you’re interested in seeing what the Instagram algorithm thinks you’d be interested in seeing ads about, go to Settings→Security→Access Data→Ad Interests. A few others of mine: Parenting (true), Baby Shower (kind of true?), Motor Vehicle (nope), Wellness: Alternative Medicine (do they not read Techno Sapiens?).
My memory was that I spent many, many hours watching these DVDs, but I then had a moment of wondering how many hours it could possibly have been, given that a season is, what, 8 episodes? 10 episodes? Reader, Google has revealed to me that the first season of The O.C. was 27 episodes, each one 45 minutes long. What on earth? What was happening in the TV production business in the early 2000’s? Did Ben McKenzie’s (a.k.a Ryan’s) face grow numb from so many hours of moody, faraway glances?
Okay, one more footnote about The O.C. because now I’m in a deep dive. I’d always considered the show to be a superficial teen drama primarily designed to convince teen girls to buy such high fashion items as shrunken polo shirts, long flowy skirts, and oversized belts. But the Wikipedia page has me questioning this dismissive take—mentioning how the show depicts a culture clash between the idealistic Cohen family and the materialistic culture in which they preside, how the show contains elements of “postmodernism” (?), how the heartwarming relationship between Seth and his dad was based on the creator’s own relationship with his father. And this quote from Peter Gallagher (a.k.a. Sandy Cohen) on reading the pilot: "In that recently post-9/11 America, I read this script and thought it was astounding […] It was about a family living in a not very embracing community […] They still open their arms and embrace this outsider kid. And I thought that was powerful […] This espoused a kind of America... [that] just felt right.” Why am I tearing up right now?
This is obviously very dependent on your job. For me, during the slow period over the holidays, I find myself continually refreshing email from my phone, even though email volume has slowed, and I know I won’t address any emails I do receive until later. It is much more efficient for me to block off a period of time and deal with emails on my laptop all at once, rather than half-focus on them throughout the day. Sometimes I will put an out-of-office message up to indicate that email responses may be a bit slower than usual. I use Slack or text message for urgent issues from colleagues, but these are rare.
If your neighborhood is anything like mine, these decorations become increasingly intricate every year—lights, trees, giant inflatable snowmen, those light-up yard figures (what are these called? This website says “Blow Mold Yard Figures” but there’s no way that is correct?). The other day I came across one, about two feet high, depicting baby Jesus in a manger, and kneeling next to him in prayer: Santa. Very confusing mix of traditions and time periods here, but apparently this is a thing.