My blended family (ages 5, 6, 7, 11, and 13) just returned from a weeklong road trip through Yellowstone National Park. During the trip, we conducted our own mini-experiment: Each of us eliminated electronic use for anything other than music. No iPhone apps, no social media, no electronic games, no texting or phone calls unless there was an emergency. There was almost no cell phone reception across the park, which made enforcement easy, but the results of our self-inflicted ‘mandatory’ unplugging still surprised me in three fundamental ways:
1. Fewer Complaints. We brought many road trip-friendly games (e.g., road trip Spot-it), coloring and sticker/activity books, and, of course, mp3 players in anticipation of multiple “are we there yet” questions. I also created 25 personally-tailored trivia questions for each of the five kids along for the trip so that anytime a kid asked “are we there yet,” an adult responded with a trivia question. The inspiration for this “activity” was an experience I had a few weeks prior to the trip; my kids and some of their friends were bored at the pool during a life-guard rest break, so to keep them occupied I started asking trivia questions about dinosaurs, superheroes, and snakes. I had never seen four preschool- and elementary-aged little boys sit still for so long, waiting patiently for the next question I would throw at them. They loved it so much that they kept asking for questions when we got back in the pool, and other little kids asked to join in.
Long-running TV shows like Jeopardy! are popular due to a motivation people have to be challenged, so I should not have been surprised little kids would feel the same way. Self-determination theory proposes that one of the most basic and important human needs is competence; when we feel like we have mastered a topic and succeed when challenged, we develop social and personal well-being.1 Using this pool-side experience, The Consultant and I threw questions about Glee, Hello Kitty, Disney princesses, and, of course, dinosaurs, superheroes and Power Rangers at the kids with each “how much longer” question they asked. Sometimes they would ask a few “are we there yet” questions just to get a question, but it rarely happened. Soon, kids were pulling out their earbuds when they knew another one was getting a question like, “Name all the seven dwarves in Snow White.” What was normally an annoyance on our road trips was now a fun way to engage everyone. Win!
2. Discovering new passions and talents. We learned a lot of new things about each other on this trip, which is consistent with a recent study showing novel and interesting experiences can lead to personal growth and an expansion of one’s self-concept.2 The teenager in our blended family had a proclaimed dislike for reading. But during our trip, she finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy and was shocked that a book could be so moving it would make her cry. After that, she even started reading another book. The professed tween bookworm did not reach her goal of reading five books on the trip: she was too enthralled with the bison, bears, frogs, and natural geysers. The 6 year old demonstrated more patience than I have ever seen him display while he scribbled and doodled away in a notebook we gave him. I learned my youngest was capable of sleeping in later than 6 a.m., and The Consultant’s 7 year old was capable of self-directed play, dancing in the woods like a fairy princess to the Frozen soundtrack on her mp3 player. The Consultant and I discovered we shared a desire to take a short, backcountry trip together sometime to be able to see the stars at night with no man-made light interference. Getting out of our element and experiencing new things together helped us all grow as individuals and as a family.
3. Change in Time Perception. My perception of time changed once I unplugged. Pre-vacation, I checked Facebook and Twitter and responded to push notifications on my SmartPhone regularly. Our sense of time flow spans 3-5 second intervals of sensory experience,3 so these constant interruptions in attention led to my time feeling fragmented. Once I pulled myself away from the distractions, time seemed to flow in a more continuous way. Research has shown the average person receives over 200 emails a day and is interrupted six times an hour during a typical work day.4 These interruptions do not even account for how frequently we receive texts and instant messages or check Facebook updates. Such interruptions have serious consequences for how we process information—we are essentially much less productive because multitasking takes energy away from things on which we are otherwise focused.5
It was not until I forced myself to completely detox from my phone that I realized the impact these distractions have on my perception of time. When I was not constantly checking email for student inquiries or monitoring my Facebook updates, my attention was focused on what was around me. I was “in the flow,” and time felt much more continuous and valuable. Even though our six-day unplugged vacation was shorter than the ten-day “connected” vacation we took as a family last year, the teenager even commented that this vacation felt longer. Although cell phones and social media can be important forms of communication and information-sharing, their use may cost a sense of disconnection from others and from ourselves.
When we returned from our trip, the younger children noticed a large pile of branches in front of the house that had fallen while we were away. Rather than continue inside to pick up the iPad and remote control, they stopped to play and build a fort. I was heartened by this, because it meant our experiment worked. The kids were not like those individuals researchers have found who would rather shock themselves than sit alone with their thoughts. They left the electronics on the table inside and found other ways to engage with life. There is plenty to explore and learn about in the world around us; all we need to do is be present and undistracted.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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1Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.
2Mattingly, B. A., & Lewandowski, G. W. Jr. (2014). Expanding the self brick by brick: Nonrelational self-expansion and self-concept size. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5, 484-490.
3Block, R. A., & Gruber, R. P. (2014). Time perception, attention, and memory: A selective review. Acta Psychologica, 149, 129-133.
4Speir, C., Vessey, I., & Valacich, J. S. (2003). The effects of interruptions, task complexity, and information presentation on computer-supported decision-making performance. Decision Sciences, 34, 771-797.
5Quan-Haase, A. (2010). Self-regulation in instant messaging (IM): Failures, strategies, and negative consequences. International Journal of e-Communication, 6, 22-42.
Dr. Jennifer Harman – Adventures in Dating… | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman’s research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.