I will never forget the shock of realising what overuse of the internet was doing to me. It was about 6.30am and my kids were both up and playing loudly around me. I was supposed to be doing something, changing nappies, getting cups of milk or something. I wasn’t doing any of that, I was checking Facebook, replying to emails and probably reading a cartoon.
In between a status update that didn’t matter to me and a cartoon that would be there tomorrow, I looked down. At my feet, the children whose births I watched, the son and daughter I had held in my arms and promised to protect and lead in front of my friends, family and church, were learning and shouting, running and crying without me. At that moment I realised that something had to give. Toddlers don’t stay toddlers very long. I was either going to fully engage as a father in that moment, with those children, or I was going to keep going the way I was going, fully engaged on Facebook, ever-present on Hootsuite, stupidly distant from my kids.
So I did something I never thought I would need to do. I put my smartphone on the bookshelf, knelt down next to my children and decided that, for the rest of that day, including the evening, I would go internet free.
If you are anything like I was, you are probably ready to give me a list of defences. You might be ready to tell me how the internet is not bad in itself (true). You might shake your head and give me the talk about the need to be “always available” (false). You might nod calmly and be glad you don’t have children.
Before you send me your speeches, please just hear me out. Something strange happened that day and I want to share it with you.
Like most dads, I can be a bit irritable sometimes. For that day, when other people’s lives weren’t crowding my head, I felt and acted much calmer. Without my usual suite of digital distractions, I had a much better memory and enjoyed each moment: a walk to the park, learning to use a (child’s) climbing wall, pushing my son on the swings without even the temptation to take a picture.
I am all into learning. I am learning what it means to be a researcher, how to interpret better, how to be a better dad. That one precious day taught me how to disconnect to reconnect. I learned that sometimes the tweets of the hundreds need to be silenced so you can hear and enjoy the giggles of the two. I learned that sometimes push messages need to be disabled to let you go out and push a buggy.
Yeah, I know, we’ve all heard it before. One of the ironies of online life is that we don’t have to go too far before we see someone telling us to take some time to disconnect. Still, it’s hard to disconnect when we all have clients, relatives and friends who expect that if they email us, they will get a reply in the next twenty minutes, even on weekends.
Such nonsense must stop. As a Christian, one of the principles I try to adhere to is the idea of a Sabbath. No, it doesn’t mean spending one day strumming harps or doing nothing but cross-stitch. It simply means that one day a week is off the calendar when it comes to work. For 24 hours out of every 168, you stop. For some people, that might mean leaving the computer off and going for a bike ride in the countryside. Others might use it to clean their house and catch-up on reading. However you use it, the point is to take one day to recharge your batteries by setting it apart from the rest of the week.
My Internet-Free Day functioned as a kind of Sabbath. I made myself deliberately unavailable and concentrated on my family. Maybe you need one too.
How do you know if you need an Internet-Free Day? I can only talk from experience but I would say that if you truthfully answer yes to more than 6 of these questions, you need one and need one soon.
- Do you get defensive when people suggest you might be overusing the internet?
- Do you find yourself checking your email or social media accounts while you are at social occasions? (Tweetups are exempt, of course).
- In the last week, have you missed a bus, train, plane or appointment because you were checking something online as you were leaving the house?
- Do you find it difficult to imagine life without a smartphone, laptop, or another internet-enabled gadget?
- Do you feel anxious if you haven’t checked your emails, or social media accounts in more than an hour?
- Do you respond more quickly to notifications on your smartphone than you do to requests from the people around you?
- Do you interrupt conversations to answer emails?
- Do you find that your thoughts often returned to articles or posts you read online, even when you are trying to do something else?
- Do you use your smartphone in the bathroom on a regular basis?
- If you are running late and realise you have forgotten your smartphone, do you return for it, even if you don’t absolutely need it?
So what’ll it be? Is it time you took a day internet free?