Reflections on a Forced Tech Fast

Reflections on a Forced Tech Fast

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My family and I got back from vacation last week after spending seven days at Sonrise Mountain Ranch near Cimarron, Colo. It’s a family camp where parents spend mornings in a pretty intense biblical curriculum together while kids have their own program. Afternoons and evenings are more open, with lots of time to paddleboat, canoe, hike, talk, play games or nap (in theory … my kids pretty much eliminated that option for me).

One thing none of us were doing, however, was engaging in electronic media. No WiFi. No cell phone coverage. No television. No news. None of that stuff. The closest we ever got was one group movie night.

I told a number of people before I went that I was both looking forward to and somewhat intimidated by the prospect of this forced media fast. It’s one thing, after all, to choose to forgo something. It’s another thing entirely to have that decision made for you. It’s a decision, in fact, that the camp has made very deliberately to enable participants in Sonrise’s weeklong programs to be able to focus on relationships, family and their connection with God.

The trepidation part came from realizing just how connected I often am to media of one form or another — most often the Internet for me, if I’m being honest. I like knowing what’s going on in the world. And in the last decade or so, I think my brain has become a little too accustomed to being able to seek both information and distraction online in moments when I feel like I need a break or a little stress relief. (Work with me on those rationalizations, OK?)

There were certainly some moments early in the week where I realized that if I’d had an Internet connection for my cellphone, I’d probably have been checking news, email, guitar sites I frequent, Facebook or any number of other myriad cyberspace destinations. Not having that outlet forced me to be more present and alert to what was happening around me — just as had been intended. Occasionally the lack of such a choice irked me a bit. But, somewhat to my surprise, I found that leaving all that tech stuff behind wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, and I relatively quickly found myself engaging (along with others) in a lot more concrete pursuits.

For example, my son and I spent hours on the dock “fishing” for minnows. Henry and some new friends had nets that they scooped the little fishies up with, and that pursuit absolutely enthralled him. We often read stories these days about how contemporary kids don’t get outside as much and have too much screen time, and this was a pretty powerful illustration of what happens if you can just unplug and begin to discover the wonder of the world around you. I had some incredible moments with Henry “fishing” as well as some in which I was ready for him to be a little bit less enthralled and ready to consider something else as I tried to keep us both from getting too sunburned at 8,500 feet. But in terms of relationship-building time with him, it was easily some of the best that I've ever had — so much so that we’re seriously looking into how we can begin doing more fishing together.

One other thing that I noticed was that as I ingested less media, my appetite for God seemed more present. Again, it was a camp focused on spiritual growth, so I don’t want to push that one too far. Still, I found myself rediscovering an appetite for Scripture that I haven’t had for, well, too long.

We've been back almost a week now. And I’d say that the effects of our time at the camp have been both ongoing but predictably under assault by the “reality” we've returned to — including those old habits. We've definitely watched much less TV as a family and individually since we got back. It feels as if we've made a significant dent in that tendency. As for Internet use, my wife and I were both really careful about it the first several days, but in the last several those old “scratch the digital itch” tendencies have been resurfacing.

The difference between being at a relatively isolated camp and being at home, of course, is that at camp some important decisions were being made for me, whereas at home and in my “real” world I have to make those hard decisions myself, one choice at a time. Still, even a “forced” fast from tech has had value for me and for my family in that it gave us space to live differently and to remember what matters most in life. (Hint: It’s not what’s happening online.) So I’ve come away from our tech-free week inspired to do more fishing with Henry in the real world and less surfing in cyberspace.

I would also wholeheartedly say that if the idea of unplugging for a week (or even a couple of days) gives you a case of the shakes just thinking about it, it really is worth it to spend some time where the digital distractions of our age are unplugged for you. I know it was good for my soul (once the aforementioned shakes stopped, of course). We’re already planning a return visit next summer, and I’m sure we’ll all be in need of a good digital detox again by then.

So what about you? Have you ever had a similar tech fast — either by choice or in a context similar to the one I’ve described? What did you learn about yourself and your habits? What changes (if any) did it inspire you to make, and what’s been the biggest hurdle in keeping those commitments once you re-entered the wired world? 

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  • --One of my favorite memories is driving out to Colorado from Atlanta to hike Mount of the Holy Cross with a 15 passenger van full of 13 of my friends. As much as I live the North Georgia mountains, there's just something about the Rockies that's truly special. I wish I had more opportunities to do trips like that more often.

  • --I read "The Winter of Our Disconnect" a while back. It's about a mom and her three teenagers who used almost no electronics for six months. It was interesting to see what changed and what didn't. Her kids had a far better attention span at the end. I can almost feel my attention span decreasing when I am on the internet a long time and vice versa. But the biggest change is that I simply feel much better when I am socializing with people in real life more, outside in the sunshine more, exercising more, just getting out of the house more.

    Most importantly, people in real life are /generally/ not as obnoxious, nasty, and irrational as they are online. There have been several articles on this topic, including this one.  Spending too much time on the internet is like staying at a house full of hundreds of children who are all screaming, fighting, and crying at once. There are a few places online where people can disagree rationally and politely, but it is rare, and ten times more so for Christian discussions, sadly enough.        

  • --  I've tried to avoid becoming addicted to technology by the way I've structured my life (not having the money to spend on access also helps): I don't have internet at my house, I have a "pay as you go" phone, so no smart phone or texting for me, and I also lead wilderness trips for my job, which means 3 days to 3 weeks away from all media and technology. I really have no desire to change this; I know I'm way more productive at home because I don't have the internet or tv to eat away at my time, and I know I would become one of those "distracted listeners" in conversations if I had a phone to check emails or texts on. I still get sucked into wasting time on the internet when I have access, but at least I've limited when that is.

  • --I too do not own a smartphone and I have no plans to get one any time soon.  It makes me sad how many times I've gone out of my way to physically be with someone and they spend the majority of the time checking texts and generally fooling around with their phone while I'm sitting there talking to them.

    But I do think I spend more time on the internet at home than I did when I was younger.  God has been helping me break free of this by seeking out ways to help others in my community, and exercising more.  I never regret unplugging.  :)

    Great post.

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