September Feature: Unplugged!
Bob and Barbara Brostrom, members of Chesapeake Conference’s Williamsport (Md.) church, have seven kids, including three teenagers that still live in their West Virginia home. It’s no shock that media plays an important role in their lives. Could they “survive” an entire week without it—no TV, Internet, social media, video games, texts, even unnecessary phone calls? We asked them to find out.
Story by Vicki Redden & Beth Michaels / Photos by Jennifer Gustines
“You can’t be serious. You want us to do what?! But, Mooom! A whole week?! That’s impossible!”
That was the response Bob and Barbara got from their kids when they announced the family media fast. It didn’t surprise Barbara. As a matter of fact, she predicted that “one would go along more or less willingly, one would fuss a bit and one would squawk loudly.” She says, “I knew they were spending too much time online, but I dreaded telling them about it.”
Bob says two words came to mind: hard sell. “I was almost certain Barbara and I would face full-blown mutiny from the three kids,” he chuckles. “When they instead gave grudging acceptance, it felt—by comparison—like an enthusiastic embrace.”
On the second day, Barbara says the squawker was still proclaiming the absurdity of the whole project: “‘I’m falling behind in tweets. I’ll never catch up with my friends!’’ She says, “We’ve been struggling to control the amount of time our kids spend with media. This told me the Internet addiction was more advanced than we’d thought and that this unplugging thing was definitely the right way to go.”
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The Brostroms are far from unique in their media use. People in most developed countries are exposed to media all day long. After all, since the dawn of the digital age, there is 24-hour television, the Internet, gaming and e-books, and round-the-clock access to email and social networking through smartphones. Millions also now do online banking and can purchase anything from groceries to car tires from the comfort of home.
All of these things are helpful to a point, but many experts say the benefits stop when the time we commit to technology becomes excessive. And, far too many of us have crossed that line. According to some sources, Americans aged 18-64 spend an average of 3.2 hours a day on social media1, and students aged 18-24 send an average of 109.5 text messages daily and check their phones an average of 60 times a day.2
“Our family is heavily involved in music, so there’s a strong pull to connect with others online who enjoy certain performers and styles,” shares Barbara. “Our 18-year-old son, Troy, enjoys spending time on Omegle, playing and singing his music for others and getting feedback from them. Julianna, 15, is a budding vocalist who follows artists like the Gaither Vocal Band and Hunter Hayes via Twitter, as well as developing online friendships with other teen girls who enjoy the same music. Eliana, 14, enjoys chatting with several of her girlfriends from church. Between the texting, tweeting, snapchat and video games, we had begun to feel the hours our kids spent with media were a little excessive.”
Mali Mann, MD, adjunct clinical assistant and professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University’s School of Medicine reports that children with substantial media exposure begin to show behavior patterns similar to addiction. “Their brains get used to too much auditory and visual stimulation, and in the absence of these stimulations, they do not know what to do with themselves,” she wrote in an online article.3 “They get anxious, restless, bored and aggressive.”
The Brostrom teens all reported similar feelings when faced with a week away from screen time. Troy and Eliana say they “hated the idea of it” and Julianna, quite frankly, tried to find a way out of it. Considering seven days disconnected from “everything” filled them with dread.
As the week drew on, the Brostroms couldn’t help but notice some fluxes in their attitudes. “On Sunday, the first day of the fast, I came home from work and heard, as usual, music coming from Julianna’s room,” says Bob. “I thought, ‘Well, that didn’t last long!’ As I … approached her closed door, I realized that the music was not from a recording; she was playing her guitar and singing a beautiful song!” He later caught her practicing her violin, something she hadn’t done in a long time.
He also found Troy reading a book … with headphones on. “The expression on my face told him I was sure I had caught him breaking the fast,” says Bob. “Turns out he was listening to a recording of the book he was reading for school.”
All three teens started to notice they had more time for worship and prayer. They also admitted they started to see where less screen time was beneficial, as they were less distracted. “I expected the fast to be difficult, and it was, but I was able to spend a lot more time with my family,” says Julianna.
Bob and Barbara knew the fast would be good for the kids. What they didn’t expect were their own reactions. “I spent the first day in my car running errands for hours. Without music. Without radio talk shows or news. Without anything,” recalls Barbara. “As I went from bank to grocery store to library … the car seemed so stiflingly quiet, and I was antsy and bored. Over and over, I’d find myself reaching for the stereo.”
Desperate for anything to pass the time as she drove, Barbara says she finally resorted to praying. “At first, I sheepishly apologized to God for only turning to Him because of being bored out of my mind,” she admits. “I got the impression He was still happy to hear from me, so I forged on.”
Three days in, Barbara noted in her fasting diary that things were getting easier: Although I feel a little disconnected from the world, I’m not experiencing such a strong pull to automatically turn on the radio or my iPhone tunes now. More introspection and praying is going on when I’m out driving alone. And tonight, when I took Ellie to VBS, where she’s a group leader, we actually spent the entire ride talking!
Bob, also noted some positive changes. During one evening, he says, “I did some honey-do type work that has been calling my name for some time.” Another evening, “I was able to have a lengthy conversation with Julie.” And, one afternoon, “I had a nice, long chat at home with Ellie, which was made possible in part because she wasn’t in her room in front of a screen.”
It’s ironic that all this “connection” and accessibility to everything, anywhere, at any time, has actually resulted in our being less connected, says Pamela Consuegra, associate director of Family Ministries for the North American Division. She puts it this way: “As families, we must make a conscious decision to disconnect in order to connect. Strong family bonds are formed when screen time is, indeed, screened. The strongest family connections are made when disconnection with technology occurs.”
She adds, “Most important, screen time is robbing you of valuable time to introduce your child to Jesus. Consider the difference it would make wandering outdoors in nature to learn about God as Creator, playing Bible games as a family or participating in a service project. The options are endless when you take the time to consider how the many hours in front of screens could better be utilized to fulfill God’s calling to you as a parent.”
Jason Decena, associate pastor at the New Hope church in Fulton, Md., says, “Unplugging from technology occasionally is crucial because it helps us engage the present moment, the people who are right in front of us. The virtual world is incredibly important, but it shouldn’t be regarded as a viable replacement for the physical world.”
While there are many great spiritual resources online, Decena says we can’t forget the great spiritual resources offline: God’s first and second books—nature and the Bible, respectively—spiritual books and, of course, people. “As a literal Sabbath rest helps us recalibrate, providing a space for us to focus on God and allow Him to be our ‘all in all,’ a virtual or online ‘Sabbath’ can give us space to rethink how we display our heavenly citizenship as digital citizens,” he says.
With that said, he believes technology has the potential to be incredibly useful to our spiritual journey. “There are more resources than ever at our fingertips. … Folks have instant access to their Bibles through apps on their smartphones,” he notes. “And, we can read firsthand accounts of others’ processes as they follow God. We can encourage and edify friends with the click of a button. We can know quickly what’s happening in others’ lives and lift them up in prayer.”
He says we need to set good boundaries and filter content, but to engage in an authentic way. “In the age of Google, Facebook and Twitter, it is even more important for us to be ‘sermons in shoes,’” he says.
A Different Kind of “Feast”
The Brostrom family considers their media fast an “unqualified success.” They report a deeper appreciation for music and less of a pull from media. “I think our kids learned that they can survive without media—for a time anyway. I believe all of us are more able to take a deliberate approach to the media we choose to access,” says Bob.
Eliana admits she learned, “I can’t just take everything for granted and should be thankful for what I have.”
Near the end of the week, Barbara documented: “My prayer life has definitely been recharged. Overall, I’m really glad we accepted the challenge of the media fast. And surprisingly, my teens seem to agree. The challenge that faces our family now is how to re-integrate our favorite pastimes back into our lives without letting them take over. The break has allowed each of us to step back and consider how much time we’ve been spending zoned out in ‘media land.’”
Vicki Redden is a member of the Williamsport (Md.) church.
1. “Social Networking Eats Up 3+ Hours Per Day for the Average American User,” Jan. 9, 2013, marketingcharts.com.
2. Kate Bratskeir, “Unplug From Technology: 19 Ways to Spend Time Off the Grid,” The Huffington Post, Feb. 27, 2013, huffingtonpost.com.
3. Jennifer LeClaire, “Kids and Tech: How Much is Too Much?” Sept. 6, 2006, technewsworld.com/story/52677.html.