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Electronics Cold Turkey (Vacation must now work harder.)

I took my family on vacation to a place with no electricity and no running water. We stayed there for ten days. It was electronics cold turkey, and at the end, the consensus among my three children—10, 13 and 15—was that we had stayed too long. I’m inclined to believe that the problem was that we did not stay long enough.

Electronics Cold Turkey, whaler

Ten days was not enough time for them to really lose the habit of their electronics addictions. They were never weaned of its pull. Once in range of electricity, it took all of five minutes to revert entirely to their old ways.

Electronics Cold Turkey Cabin

During the 10 days away they did grow accustomed to the routines of drawing water, an outhouse, a variety of outdoor activities and—to some extent—reading, but it seems there always remained a deep and nearly ever-present longing for the solace of instant gratification, instant communication.

Electronics Cold Turkey drawing water

This year the weather was nothing short of perfect. The blueberries and raspberries were ripe and plentiful. The fishing good. The water clear and ideal for swimming. All was as good as it’s ever going to be, and the verdict …

Electronics Cold Turkey Emerson on Annie


Electronics Cold Turkey cottage porch

I do admit that when I was 15, my time on the island—away from anyone who was not immediate family—was hard, but when I was 10, as is my son, it was NOT. When I was 10 and summer came, with its long stretch of freedom, fewer friends and good chunks of semi-boredom, our trip to this island in Canada where we could swim and play, remote, primitive, in the company of only my immediate family, was always the height of my summer. It was so anticipated that it was always nearly impossible to sleep the night before our departure. It was each summer’s great adventure, even though it was essentially the same trip every year.

Electronics Cold Turkey, singing

When I asked my kids if we should come back next year, they said, “No. Let’s go someplace else.” What’s so different for them? The place and the experience are nearly exactly as they were. We share a good bit of genetic material. My wife and I both spent large chunks of time essentially alone in vast natural environs. We loved it. Their response though is dramatically different.

Electronics Cold Turkey, marina

Perhaps this is a reflection of the immense power of the new virtual experience that plays an increasingly prominent role in the lives of our children. For my 9-year-old, the adventures he creates or enters on MineCraft are as good or better than those obtainable on this real trip to the real wilderness. It has all of the upsides—challenges, autonomy, opportunity for mastery, social experience—without most of the downsides—mosquitoes, outhouses, annoying sisters, cleaning the fish you catch and the dishes you use. It’s all the adventure and fun of discovery with none of the interstitial dullness and routine.

Electronics Cold Turkey, spider

How do you compete with that?

Electronics Cold Turkey friends

I think an answer may be time. Time enough to begin to forget. Time enough to really slow down. Time enough to find new physical and mental routines and habits that satisfy the senses in subtle ways perhaps unachievable in a virtual experience. Vacations, it seems, now require even more time than they once did, even as they are given less. If they are to truly restore us, taking us back to ourselves as we were before electronics stole our solitude, our slowness, our simplicity of thought, they must be given more time to work their magic.

Electronics Cold Turkey on rock

Ten days was not enough. So my children and I only experienced withdrawal—loss, loneliness, boredom, moments of fun and accomplishment, but not mastery, not autonomy, not a sense of being at one with this new environment. We were ever only tourists in a strange and beautiful land. It hadn’t the time to give us what we really needed.

Electronics Cold Turkey, Cabin 1 porch

This is sad. Do I force my children to stay longer next time? Do I push them harder by removing electronics from that car ride, making them stare out the window for 3 days on the trip as I once did, so the arrival at the island really does represent an event, an achievement and not just a sudden severance from communication with the world?

Electronics Cold Turkey driver

I took them cold turkey and it left us … dissatisfied. I could take the opposite tack. I could facilitate their addiction even while on vacation. We could put solar power on the island, collect a cell signal and extend our normal lives into this far away and beautiful setting.

Electronics Cold Turkey, wake

I had an interview recently in which a mother told me the story of the worst vacation of her life. She planned intensely and took her whole family to a beautiful tropical destination with swimming pools and a stunning white sand beach. There were hundreds of fun outdoor activities for her kids … and yet the only thing that any of them did the whole trip was stay in the hotel room umbilically connected to their familiar electronic games.

Electronics Cold Turkey, spalsh

I refuse to allow this. I will persist. I will take them electronics cold turkey again. Maybe next year I will be able to break through.


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  1. June says:

    Nice pictures!

    1. James Heaton says:

      The iPhone—when it’s not trying to listen to the outside world—holds a charge for quite a while…

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I would say this post makes a larger point, which I understood to be this: It’s hard for an unplugged and off-the-grid vacation to compete with the rewards and stimulation that the virtual experience delivers, but that trying to cram all of that experience into such a short amount of time and still expect magic to happen may be wrongheaded. That we may be selling a wilderness experience short, or doing it (really, ourselves) a disservice by trying to force epiphanies in a matter of days. This kind of experience needs time to fully digest and appreciate; we may not really slow down and ready ourselves to absorb the benefits until given the opportunity (a more extended experience) to do so. But the point is not to give up; it’s not that the hoped-for benefits and new ways of thinking and connecting with nature don’t exist out there, perhaps our approach just needs to be different. 10 days is enough for breaking down (electronic withdrawal), but not for building up. Enough time to create a void, but not to fill it.

    1. James Heaton says:

      Now that I have been back in regular life for a few weeks (watching my kids binge on electronic media in prodigious quantities as their summer begins to expire) I am convinced that I did make an egregious tactical error.

      I mention it in the post itself, but it has clarified for me since. The four days in the car on the ways to and from the island should also have been entirely electronics free. I was thinking that it is better for me if they are preoccupied on this long trip. This was a mistake.

      After having had to stare out of the car window for 30 hours of real driving time, the arrival at our destination will then be a celebrated release, a genuine arrival at a different world where they are no longer required to sit still, tracing our progress as we s-l-o-w-l-y crawl over the face of the planet. The island will not represent deprivation, but instead freedom from the slow motion landscape that you cannot touch or really feel.

      The hard decision, therefore, is to ban all electronics from the moment we leave our front door in Brooklyn, and thus extend the electronics intermission by 8 more days. 18 to 20 days is a more realistic timeframe for the kids to find their way through to the other side of their addiction.

      1. Elizabeth Kaczmarczyk says:

        Thank you for this beautiful piece of writing. In 1991, before the era of electronics, my new husband and I took our honeymoon. We were 2 very busy film technicians working very long hours and weekends. Answering machines and remote access to retrieve your messages was essential to our free-lance lives. We were very aware that it took us a full 2 weeks to relax and “decompress” as we called it at the time. And that was with so much less electronic stimulation! Your children are very lucky to have the opportunity you have provided them. These types of places are fast disappearing, and the opportunity to experience living this way as well. Go longer next time!

  3. consuelo says:

    What if instead we all learn to use our electronic gear in a different way, and allow ourselves and our kids to live “electroniclessly” at least for part of our day-to-day life?

    We do not need to check Facebook every 5 minutes, neither our emails or various apps. We can still draw on paper and play “non-electronic” games. We should not give up on our kids and ourselves.

    Say no when you need to…take away “the gear.” Shut off the Playstation. Explain to your kids that your family has different values than other families, neither better or worse…just different. Listen to their complaints, but do not give up.

    You’ll find they will be happier, smarter and get better grades. They will not “suffer” next time you go to the island. They will have fun…and will post the pics on Facebook when they are back home… 🙂

    Good luck…

    1. Nick Balaban says:

      This is such a HUGE issue. I’m sure a large part of the problem is that we adults are on screens, online for MORE time than our kids, because of the relatively new realities related to work, paying bills, and staying in touch with our communities. We can offer no positive model while we spout didactics and theoretical advice to our kids. It is frightening, precisely because we see our own de-evolution happening, and not just to our descendants. One of my gems of abstract, hypocritical family wisdom is that Boredom is Great. I know the kids hate to hear me say it, but I hope someday they’ll appreciate how so much purpose and meaning springs from boredom, the most common existential pain.

      It’s vital to do what you’re doing — whatever you can — to get our kids offline, and to get us parents offline, as well. We need to have parties, get-togethers, electronic-free trips, and we need to steal long vacations from our crippling economy, probably in part by fighting for increased socialism and awareness of our growing insensitivity to the fast decay of a peaceful, balanced lifestyle.

      Good luck to all of us!

      1. James Heaton says:

        Thank you Nick. You make wonderful points. Your thoughts on boredom merits its own blog post: “In praise of boredom.

  4. Judy Adrianson says:

    Well before the advent of personal computers, cell phones, ipods, etc. many summers ago, living on a lake near the woods in New Jersey, I decided to unplug the TV for the entire summer. At that time we had only one in the house. It was unplugged on Memorial Day, covered and not replugged until Labor Day. It was my own experiment. Husband, wife, two daughters, one teen and one toddler. It took all of us about 2-3 weeks to get used to being without it. We really missed it. No news, sports, cartoons, primetime–nothing. Unplugged.

    We read books. We talked. We played games. We played outside! We cleaned the house. It was probably the best summer of my life. By the end as Labor Day approached, while the others waited anxiously for the return, I felt great dread at going back to our old ways. But I was true to my word and plugged it back in.

    I was even more saddened at how quickly we all fell back into old habits. Sigh! And this was only ONE electronic device. You’re fighting something much more powerful. My suggestion if you truly want to wean, is to take all the electronics away a week before you leave. Then they could spend the extra time coming up with activities for the car.

    And even planning events for the vacation.

  5. James Heaton says:

    Judy, thank you for sharing this, and for a very good suggestion—Cut out early so we can all PLAN for the deprivations to come. Force ourselves as a family to devise some schemes to deal with the impending void—the painful separation from our electronic lovers!

    I wonder if I can engineer this even if I am supposed to be working during my upcoming spring break trip? Perhaps I designate strict work hours for myself, and then put my computer and phone in the hotel safe at all other times.

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