Plug into family time and disconnect from digital screens to make lifelong memories on your vacation.
By Annette Thompson
The vision is a bit different for each of us, but it goes something like this: We walk hand in hand down a golden beach, or melt into fits of giggles around an impossibly blue swimming pool, or high-five on an emerald fairway after a great approach shot. Our family vacation dreams blend undivided attention to each other with stunning settings.
In today’s 24/7 world, our friends and associates expect us to be available at all hours, and that forces an uneasy balance. In a simpler time, a screen was a door that your kids let slam shut on their way outside, a delightful tool to welcome in fresh breezes and keep out pesky flies. These days, 21st century screens let other people into our here-and-now, often raising a barrier to those standing just steps away.
So should you leave your screens—your cellphones, pods, pads and computers—at home? Some vacationers bravely opt for a full-scale digital detox, yet a middle ground may exist where families holiday together and still appropriately connect with their everyday world.
Experts suggest that you lay the groundwork before ever leaving home. “Families have to talk about how to use technology as a family,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a psychologist and school consultant who is also a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. “On vacation, you make family a priority,” she says. Her new book, “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age” (2013, Harper Collins), addresses ways we can do just that.
Lynn Clark, a professor in media studies at the University of Denver and author of “The Parent App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age,” agrees. It is vital for parents to take technology retreats with their children, she says. “We need to be intentional about technology. Vacation times are important for investing in communication. We must enjoy being in the moment.”
But first you’ll need to break through youngsters’ obsessions with Instagram, Facebook, video games and the like, to capture their attention. The irony is that older generations believe young folks are the ones addicted to technology. Yet, separating from email can challenge even the most committed adult.
“If parents think it’s important to check email, maybe they can do that only once a day,” Clark suggests. “That sends a message to youngsters that they can set limits on themselves. Parents can say, ‘Hey, look, I’m connecting only once a day—you can, too.’ The bottom line is to talk about unwinding together and individually, and how to value this vacation that is such a gift.”
Sometimes parents and grandparents have to pull the heavy hand to set the rules in advance. According to Steiner-Adair, if you don’t protect the time together every day, it disappears. “Screen time is not up for negotiation,” she says. “Parents must authorize themselves to say, ‘We are on vacation. This is an experience we are giving you.’ ”
Unplug and Reconnect
So you’ve laid the groundwork, and you’re winding past the green marshes on Sea Island Causeway to slip over the river and glimpse the terra cotta roofs through the live-oak trees. With the myriad selection of activities at Sea Island for kids, families and adults, leaving the screens behind should be easy, yes?
“Sea Island offers plenty of structured and unstructured activities for families to choose from every day,” says Anne Harvey, activities manager at Sea Island. The ideal vacation here blends “together time” with “independent time.” Each family member can relax, exercise, learn a little something and make new friendships. Then, when they come back together later in the day, each has a different story to share.
Kids happily glom onto Camp Cloister (for ages 3 – 8) and Club Sea Island (ages 9 – 12). Scavenger hunts, bicycle rides, themed activities and more keep them occupied and happy.
“Camps should [entail] playing,” Steiner-Adair says. “Parents can play a round of golf and children can explore tidepools with other children. They learn how to get along with others and be a part of a short-lived group. It gives them a chance to explore a new countryside and increase a budding sense of stewardship toward the land. As long as kids are engaged in their bodies and nature, it’s good.”
Afterward, take part in one of the scheduled family activities, such as dragging a seine net in the ocean to discover Georgia’s sea life or paddleboarding across the water together. When everyone learns in a group setting, families settle into an easygoing pace that blends trust and humor—kids love to laugh at Mom and Dad’s antics.
Don’t forget to leave time for unstructured play, too. “It’s important for raising healthy children to be in the flow of the moment with their parents,” Clark says. “That’s where memories are made.”
Choose a setting that appeals to you—maybe one day sit on the beach together for an hour or so, or in the garden by the chapel or even on the comfortable sofas in the hotel lobby. Let children’s imaginations guide this time while you simply sit back and observe their creativity. You might even want to bring along a book or magazine to read while they play.
“Children need unstructured time on vacation too,” Steiner-Adair adds. “They need time to play where they learn how to cycle through an idea, frustration, boredom, and then a new idea. That’s how we encourage curiosity, creativity and the capacity for innovation. They must develop the capacity for solitude, for understanding the pleasure of their own company and being connected to something larger in nature.”
With practice, unstructured time may grow a bit longer each day, with your kids enjoying their own minds while under your approving care.
Feeding Face Time
Meal times can be a struggle with the digital world, as well. Have you ever been out to dinner and looked around to see a group sitting together, yet everyone was gazing at their devices?
One idea is to play the “phones-down game” where everyone puts their phones face down stacked on the table during a meal. The first person to check his or her phone pays the bill. While that may be fun among adults, how do you get your family to agree for much longer periods of time—especially on a vacation?
At Sea Island, the cellphone-free restaurants keep that scenario from invading mealtimes. And yes, local cell towers work quite well. It’s simply the treasured Sea Island way. But that may not be as easy at other times.
When Steiner-Adair vacationed in the Turks recently, she met parents whose silent kids were staring at screens. The parents would say, “Isn’t this great, we don’t have to say a word to our kids.” She thinks those folks are missing vital family life. While uninterrupted grown-up talk is essential at times, getting together somewhere different is an opportunity to relate.
“It’s important to build family connections by teaching children to talk at the dinner table across generations and for grown-ups to bring the conversation around to include children,” Steiner-Adair continues. “Parents should teach the art of dialog and sustained conversation. It’s an art and craft.”
Putting the digital down at meal times can be one of the most difficult times for families. “We make it a priority,” says Debbie Cole Wells of Washington, Ga., whose family spends part of the summer in a Sea Island Cottage. “We make every effort to keep phones away from meal times. But we do bring our work phones on vacation. We simply don’t take them to the beach or out to dinner.”
So if your family is carrying their phones and tablets around with them, adopt the phones-down strategy, and play a game. Stow them away during meals and agree upon a charge for whoever breaks the agreement. For kids, it could be an earlier bedtime or the total loss of the use of the device during allowed hours.
Recharging the Batteries
Most families work out a daily time when it’s appropriate to check digital devices. For those who have teenagers, that can even include a part of the free-play downtime.
Steiner-Adair cautions that parents must lead by adhering to these agreements. “It’s critical that parents play by the rules, too. If you have together time and parents decide it’s OK to make a call, check email or knock off a task, then children will be hurt or frustrated,” she explains. “Kids are extremely vocal about the extent that parents betray their children’s trust by being hypocritical. You have to be the role model for etiquette and responsible use.”
Some of the best times to schedule a digital check-in can be after lunch or late afternoons when everyone is relaxing. Then, screens can actually work to bring families together.
“Kids love to share the latest YouTube viral thing with adults,” Clark says. “It’s not hard to do, and it puts them as leaders. When you use technology in that way, young people can take the lead in the family leisure and build a bridge between generations.”
Clark also suggests families tell stories about their vacations while they are happening. “Family members like to blog about vacations. Through Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook, young people can take photos or create pages about what the family is doing,” she says.
Think of it as modern scrapbooking—in real time, elbow to elbow with your family, crafting your own personal experience.
“One thing media can do is help to tell a story of how a family came together and spent their vacation together,” she adds.
So when you do return home, you’ve already developed your photos and packaged your memories. Plus, looking back at your time wandering around Georgia’s golden sands and emerald grounds will remind you of the hugs and smiles you shared. Now that’s a way to digitally connect family vacations.