Unplug yourself

2011-01-26 00:00

SUSAN Maushart, a New York mother, has released a book called The Winter of our Disconnect in which she details the six months that she and her family disconnected from anything with a screen. You heard right — she turned off all televisions, computers, Internet access and cellphones.

Her children adjusted to “The Experiment” with varying degrees of trauma. By the end of the six months, her son opted to stay unplugged, because he had discovered the saxophone. Her other two have learnt to love outmoded pleasures like board games and nature walks, and her older daughter’s grades have improved.

The concluding advice of her book is to attempt to limit children’s exposure to stuff with screens so that they learn to embrace the wondrous things that real life has to offer. She advises one screen-free day a week, during which other pleasures have to be explored.

A friend of mine used to do this. She didn’t have children, but on Thursdays, she and her husband would turn off all electricity, cook dinner on the gas camp stove or a braai, and eat by candlelight in the garden. Whenever she mentioned their Thursday-night plans, it all sounded deeply peaceful and very appealing to me, but somehow I’ve never quite got around to making it an institution.

I’m a little hooked on online. E-mail and Twitter are my two biggest vices. There’s always something interesting going on, and the rapid-fire flurry of information at my fingertips can be a lot more compelling than the nightly routine of bath time, dinner time, bed time and down time.

And this is the problem with the online world, brought to us by devices with screens. It’s far more interesting than nothing at all, but because it’s there, we don’t make something out of nothing. Families that don’t have television or computers find creative ways of passing the time like reading together or playing board games. Or even, going for a walk or playing ball in the front garden. But with the Internet, we don’t have to think of things like this.

We all get a twitch if we’re away from our electronic devices for too long. One of the first things that many babies do is imitate their mothers holding a cellphone to their ears. My daughter begs hysterically for “rains” every time she catches sight of the iPad because she wants to watch the rain graphic in the Weather HD application.

I am not anti-Internet or electronics, but I do believe that we should do what we can to remember the other way of living. I’ve seen my niece sitting side by side with her best friend while both SMS other friends on their cellphones, and I hope that if we took away their devices, they would still be able to have an actual conversation and follow through a thought to its conclusion.

And so, I will be taking on the advice of Susan Maushart, and one evening a week, I’ll be turning off all screens (and maybe even all electricity) to enjoy the simpler pleasures of life. I’ll report back on my progress in six months’ time.

• Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. She believes that there’s also a lot to be learnt from time spent on the Internet. Yes, even Twitter.

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