Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - July 12, 2013

Digital detox

Families find a new balance by unplugging from electronic devices

by Sue Dremann, Rye Druzin and John Brunett

When Mallika Ranjan's oldest son, Ankit, began playing Runescape at age 8 on the family laptop, she and her husband knew they had to make some rules. Having worked in high tech for a combined 25 years, they worried about Ankit's engrossment, she said.

"He was obsessed by it. ... That's all that he talked about. That's all that he wanted to do — and that didn't seem healthy to us," she said.

Like many other parents, Mallika and Peeyush Ranjan have found it challenging to keep their two sons, now 6 and 14, away from technology. But a growing number of Palo Alto parents are inserting old-fashioned, non-technological fun into their children's activities, especially during the summer, they said. The respite from electronic stimulation has improved their relationships and broadened their off-screen interests.

Children and their parents have found ways, from summer camps to family retreats in the woods, to unplug from electronics, if only for a little while. And they came to a surprising conclusion: They didn't miss their electronic devices, they said.

There is real value in unplugging or at least managing screen time, researchers say. Being too plugged in can lead to irritability, social isolation and aggressive behavior. (See sidebar.)

For the Ranjans, unplugging completely isn't a goal, and it might prove hard. Ankit is an active programmer who has created one start-up and worked on a few others.

But the Ranjans are all too aware of the downsides of constant technology use, due to their own careers.

"We worked really hard for a couple of years, and then you wake up one day and go like, 'Oh, I've gained weight. I have not gone for a walk, I've just been in here.' And when we got that realization is when (we said), 'OK, we better keep an eye out on our kids,'" Mallika Ranjan said.

Palo Alto parents vividly recall moments when they knew that overuse of technology was robbing their kids of their childhoods.

Arriving home one night, Kat Gordon found her two sons — Ben, 15, and Henry, 11 — parked in front of the TV and also using their iPhones.

"It was the lowest of lows a mother can have," Gordon said.

"It's not just the time they are sitting vacantly in front of the screen. It's a very one-sided experience. It's all of the hours they are missing that they could be using to discover something else they love," she said.

Melissa Baten Caswell, a Palo Alto school board member, has seen a loss of childhood creativity caused by too much plugging in. For a fundraiser, she auctioned building a robot out of recycled trash, and the kids who came to her home were excited, she said.

But once they were in her basement amid the mounds of recycled materials, they were at a loss.

"Where's the kit?" she recalled them asking.

Technology is also profoundly changing how kids relate to each other, said Jim Politis, the director of Mountain Camp, a traditional summer camp at Lake Tahoe as well as the rural Woodside Priory School in Portola Valley.

He and his wife saw those changes firsthand in their daughter.

She and another girl were having an argument on the bus by texting back and forth — all while sitting side by side.

It was easier than talking face to face, their daughter had explained.

Raising children who are born into the Digital Age comes with a special challenge, agreed Melissa Anderson, a Palo Alto mother of three.

"They want it so much. They want to be on their phones; they want to be watching Sportscenter. (They want) all kinds of electronics. So we constantly have to make parameters about what's acceptable, and then there's always negotiation," she said.

Parents aren't the only ones concerned. Gordon's son Ben has learned to use the Internet judiciously, he said. But some of his friends are constantly plugged in. Their choices of what to view have sometimes had a negative effect on their personalities.

"The Call of Duty video game is the most popular video game. It is totally violent. People get so attached to that game. They get irritable. If parents don't step in, it becomes an issue. It is not a benefit to their general health," he said.

Ben has seen how seductive electronic devices can become, even when there are plenty of other creative and fun options. He has attended Mountain Camp for several summers. Electronic devices were an option during rest periods until five years ago.

"Nobody turned them off. Everyone had iPods and played games like BrickBreaker," he said.

Now the camp has banned electronic devices altogether.

Parents are trying several strategies to lure their children away from the siren song of electronics, they said.

The Ranjans impose strict rules about technology use during the school year. Ashvin, their younger son, cannot use any technology during weekdays, and he is only allowed one hour of playing time on the Wii on Sundays.

Ankit has fewer restrictions than his younger brother because of his involvement in programming. His computer curfew is 10 p.m., at which time it automatically shuts off.

But Ranjan worries about how pervasive technology can still be "after hours," particularly with Ankit's iPhone.

"We can shut off his computer at night, and we're like, 'OK, now we've gone out. Is he online?'

"When you have a smart phone, people take it to the restroom. They have it in their bed at night. There's a lot more that goes on," she said.

Politis and his wife focus on family movie nights and other unplugged times together. They limit the number of devices in their home. Their four children share an iPad that was purchased with pooled Christmas money, working out their own schedule for personal screen time, he said.

The Andersons try to balance electronics use based on each child's ability to handle it. Ethan, 17, has more freedom to use technology than his younger siblings, twins Brian and Kate, 13, mainly because he has shown he is mature enough to use it well and not get distracted, Melissa Anderson said.

"He's a good student, so in some ways we let him get away with a lot. And we tell him all the time, 'We allow you all this independence and this responsibility as long as you can handle it,'" she said.

House rules include a ban on cell phones in the younger kids' room after 9 p.m., and television privileges only after all homework is done. The rules are more relaxed during the summer — as long as the kids are active in sports and outside play, she said.

The Gordon household also has rules. The children view television 30 minutes a day and the family keeps the computer in the kitchen to monitor its use, Kat Gordon said.

Unplugging, or at least controlling use of electronics, benefited her family, Baten Caswell said. The family takes an annual vacation to New Hampshire, and Internet reception is poor where they stay. So the entire family is device-free. They take hikes, swim and sail together.

"It's nice to be unplugged and where there is no access. It's a relief," she said.

At Mountain Camp, Baten Caswell's children began playing board games, which they have continued to do at home. The face-to-face time has helped them to develop in ways they don't when interacting via technology, she said.

"You have to learn to have a conversation with other people," she said.

Having some boredom during the summer is a good thing too, she added.

"You have to use your creative energies. I see my kids are so much more creative when they have more time."

In his backyard on Monday afternoon, Baten Caswell's son, Cas, 14, was building a bean-bag-toss game board. He cut a hole into the wood and planned to paint it a blue-gray with a red, circular bull's-eye, he said.

Since adopting activities such as the board games, croquet and other outdoor games, Cas said he is using his digital devices much less frequently.

"Before I was playing online games and watching TV. It's not too hard to unplug. There are so many other things to do," he said.

Creativity bloomed after the children who came to build the auctioned trash robot got over their shock, Baten Caswell said. Without a kit, they were forced to think outside the box. By the end of the session they were running all over the place with the hot-glue gun, she said.

"They really had a great time."

The Ranjans took both boys on a trip down the California coast this summer, en route to the Johns Hopkins Camp for Talented Youth in Los Angeles. The trip was ad hoc, and much of the time was spent talking to Ankit.

"We would drive down the coast and camp. It was one of those things where no reservations were made. ... And we talked," Mallika Ranjan said.

While Ranjan and Ankit spent time together, Ashvin had an iPad with movies to watch during the drive. When the family arrived in Los Angeles, the roles switched.

Ankit, who doesn't enjoy Disneyland, caught up on his device time, she said.

Ashvin unplugged.

"He's there jumping on rides, looking for Mickey Mouse," Ranjan said. The point of getting away from technology is to create real-life memories, she added.

"When you are 21 and you look back and you remember things that stand out in the summer you'll remember that we went camping at Pismo Beach and there were fireworks at 10:30 at night. I don't expect my 7-year-old to remember his score at Angry Birds as much as he remembers his Disneyland trip," she said.

The power of experiences to enrich one's life also recently surfaced for Kat Gordon.

Flipping through her high school yearbook with son Ben recently, she recalled his reaction to the book's candid-shots pages.

"I wish I was in high school at your time instead of mine. It looks like you guys are having so much fun and there are no technology distractions," she recalled he said.

Ben confirmed that sentiment recently.

"I wish I could be going to school in the '50s. That would be ideal. Life was simpler; electronics makes everything so rushed," he said.

But living in Silicon Valley, using technology is considered a must, he acknowledged. It plays into the cultural expectations of the valley, where everyone is supposed to become a doctor or engineer.

"It's just another thing that makes things more complicated instead of just growing up simply — as kids are supposed to be growing up," he said.

Ben started doing more of the simpler things at 9, when he began attending Mountain Camp, which takes kids ages 5 to 14. He returns home from camp each year feeling more relaxed, he said

Since unplugging there, the world has "become a lot bigger. You realize there is more to summer and life," he said.

Ben has had time to develop additional interests. He began playing golf at Palo Alto High School a year ago, and he now has a passion for the game. He targets his time online to educating himself about golf, rather than indiscriminately Web surfing, he said. He doesn't have any games on his phone, and he only uses it for communicating, he said.

Mountain Camp has opened the world up for both her sons, Gordon said.

"What appealed to me is that they are getting a lot of free time to decide what they want to do. It's all about people — being with other kids. They come home filthy. Their feet are black. They have such a good time," she said.

When son Henry stepped off the bus after his first year at the camp, "The very first thing he said was, 'May I please go again next year?'" she said.

At the Portola Valley camp on a recent afternoon, dozens of children gathered outdoors. With faces flushed from the afternoon heat, the children took up crafts under the trees and skidded along the 100-foot slip-and-slide in the playing field.

There were quite a few bull's-eyes in the archery range.

"Play is a skill that is being lost," camp owner Don Whipple said, looking on.

These days kids live in an era where every minute of every day is structured by activity or goals. But at camp the focus is on being "in the moment," Politis said.

Campers design their own schedules and choose from a variety of activities each day, ranging from scientific discovery to arts, swimming, movie making, mountain biking and outdoor survival.

"It's good, old-fashioned play before batteries were around," Politis said.

Over-saturation of technology is a systemic issue that goes beyond kids, however, and parents bear part of the blame because they, too, are under the devices' spells, Politis said.

"I see parents in the morning drive in, and as I'm helping to get their kid out of the car, the parents are sitting there looking at the navigation screen and talking on the phone with the Bluetooth plugged in. The kids say, 'Bye, Mom and Dad,' and the parents just nod. It's harder on the kids. They can't get their parents' attention," he said.

Even the most diligent parents are affected. Anderson views technology as an aid and a tool, but she conceded it can have too much influence over her life.

"There's a lot of good about it, but there's also a lot of bad about it. It's like a bug to a bug light. You can't not look at it. It's hard to ignore," she said.

There are times when Anderson finds it hard to get off email or Facebook, and her iPhone is essential to everyday life, she said.

"I'm a typical Palo Alto mom. I'm running around, doing normal family errands. I read email on the fly, send messages to my kids reminding them of certain things. It's a tool, and I would miss it if it was gone."

Last week Politis witnessed a scene that gave him hope. He recalled when a mother drove up to unload her young son for the Mountain Camp day session. As the boy ran to join the throng of happy campers, the mother shouted: "Play hard today! Get a bull's-eye!"

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com. Editorial Interns Rye Druzin and John Brunett can be emailed at rdruzin@paweekly.com and jbrunett@paweekly.com.

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