For many, toes in the ocean sand or lush mountain trails are vital ingredients of much-anticipated summer vacations. Children are out of school, and thoughts turn to pool days and summer camps. Cellphones, laptops, and tablets are nowhere to be found in daydreams of time away. And yet, these digital devices are players in many getaways when vacationers want to recharge and unwind.
Laurie Fritsch, assistant director of Hokie Wellness at Virginia Tech, said it is essential to take breaks every day from devices, especially during a vacation.
“If we are always distracted by devices during our breaks, especially on vacation, we will not feel like we had a break,” said Fritsch. “Stress and anxiety levels will remain high, and, most importantly, when we are on our devices when with others, it takes away from our ability to connect.”
This isn’t easy. Many apps and tools are meant to draw people in and keep them there. Notifications, constantly refreshing feeds, and targeted ads keep audiences engaged and coming back for more.
Fritsch offered this advice for those who want to enjoy vacation mode and take a break.
Give yourself very specific times to respond to work and messages.
Set up auto-respond messages stating when you will be responding.
Create a vacation focus mode on your phone that helps you protect your vacation time by allowing notifications only by people and apps that you want to allow to disrupt your vacation.
Commit to keeping your phone out of sight when sleeping or in conversation with others.
If pictures are essential, take a picture and then put your phone away rather than holding it in your hand.
Write a list of things you want out of your vacation. Ask yourself how your phone or technology will contribute to or take away from your vacation experience. What are tangible steps you can take to maximize these vacation goals?
Give yourself permission to unplug.
It doesn’t have to be cold turkey
Julia Feerrar, University Libraries’ head of digital literacy initiatives, said digital well-being is more than disconnecting.
“Digital well-being also includes the positives of digital life. If we’re going to talk about reducing the quantity of time we spend on our screens, I want to talk about deepening the quality of time we spend,” said Feerrar. “There’s certainly a time and place for disconnecting, but there are other ways to pursue digital well-being.”
Feerrar recommended doing a quick reflection on your digital life as a whole.
What is most stressful to you?
Where are you spending a lot of time and energy?
Where are some of the places you find joy and fulfillment?
Jump to stressors that you’d like to address such as an over-full inbox, toxic comment threads on social media, or endless news consumption.
Do stressors apply across multiple platforms or are they concentrated on one?
“Digital well-being is the pursuit of health, safety, and happiness in our digital lives. It’s about looking at the stressors that come with using digital media or technology, understanding some of the structures behind them, and figuring out what we can do about them,” said Feerrar.
She said to take stock of the factors involved and pick goals and strategies that make sense.
School’s out for the summer
Unstructured summer days may mean an increase in children’s and teens’ device time. When limits are imposed, it can get ugly.
“Many of us have forgotten how to be bored. Kids, especially growing up today, have likely not experienced much boredom in the digital era,” said Fritsch. “When device time is taken away or decreased, kids emerge from their devices and games often with bad attitudes, which makes it increasingly hard to manage for them and their caretakers.
“An important thing to know here is that when we scroll or play video games for hours, our brains are flooded with dopamine, a reward chemical,” said Fritsch. “This response is very powerful, and even more so in a developing brain.”
Fritsch said it’s important to create opportunities, playdates, and other experiences that are device free. When children are on their devices, she said, it’s important that for every hour on the device, they take a break for an hour.
“It needs to be a 1 to 1 ratio in most cases, back to back, not five hours on and then five hours off,” said Fritsch. “This helps manage the dopamine response.”
Feerrar said it’s challenging for parents and caregivers to figure out how to help children and teens navigate digital life.
“The Surgeon General just released an advisory on social media use for kids and teens, so I know this is even more top of mind for many. As the advisory discusses, there are both really significant benefits and drawbacks to social media use for youth,” said Feerrar. “Social media can help young people find community and connection in very important ways, but it can also be really harmful. There are similar pros and cons for gaming as well. We need to hold both the potential for good and for harm together in figuring out what works for our families. It’s tough.”
Summertime is a great time to have family conversations about digital wellness and the benefits and drawbacks of digital life. Feerrar suggests a few tips to get started.
Work together on a family plan for digital well-being. What can you all commit to together?
Share some of the joys and challenges you experience yourself — model the ups and downs of your own digital well-being pursuit.
Look for opportunities to have family screen time. A big screen and others to share it with can often be a healthier scenario than a small screen solo.
Look for screen-free family time. Commit together to a device-free dinner, for example.
Prioritize screen time that lets kids get creative or engage in other passions.
Digital well-being is a fairly new idea. However, concerns about privacy, security, and online behavior have existed since the internet began.
“Concerns about new media consumption pop up with every generation, from the dawn of the printed novel to radio, television, and social media,” said Feerrar. “This complex digital life is a new context for all these concerns though, and the speed and interconnectedness of our digital society feels like it raises the stakes.”
Ann Brown for Virginia Tech