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Keeping it Real: (Dis)Connected in a Smart Phone World

Published September 25th, 2013


My wife, Jerilyn, and I try to lead a simple life centered around our family – three boys, ages eighteen, fifteen & ten – and our home and land – a small farm where we milk cows, raise chickens and grow food for our table. Sounds pretty bucolic, huh? Truth be told, we find ourselves constantly battling the impending doom of our family connection at the mercy of the smart phone. I imagine some of you are similarly engaged on the front lines with your own family. And, if you are not, you better wake up and freshen up your latte because, as a parent, you should be.

More than ever, keeping family (read: community) connected, our kids conversing with us and each other, our dinner table and home a place of refuge from the “must do now” world is requiring serious strategic planning. Our enemy (maybe too harsh) is getting smarter all the time and the pressure to be “on” and available 24/7 is, unfortunately, pervasive in our demented culture.

Here are some of the strategies we have employed to try to keep it real at home:

Delay Gratification

Sixth graders don’t need smart phones! When we offer adult tools to children, we rush them out of their childhood and push them to grow up before their time. It is a gift to be a child with the space to create, play games and engage with friends, explore the world around you with your own senses, free of outside interpretation and constructs. Let’s help protect their fleeting childhood. Have you ever seen a group of young teens with phones. Inevitably, they are all standing in one big circle….talking, right? Wrong! Take a closer look – they are each having a text conversation with a friend somewhere else. This is connection? I don’t think so. No one is actually talking to each other anymore. WTF!

I know why we get them phones – for safety – so that they can reach us at any time of the day. We didn’t need always to be available twenty years ago, so why do we need to be now. At the high school open house the other day, one of the teachers explained that they did not allow students to use phones during class. Really! That’s refreshing. You mean they are not supposed to be texting friends while they are learning? Now this may be top-secret information to many of you, but (shhh!) our children are texting during class. They know how to type without looking at the keyboard while still appearing engaged to the teacher. I think some teachers just look the other way. It is a charade, a hoax. There is a clear rule against cell phone use in class. Lets empower our educators to get cell phones out of school!

Announce Your Disconnection

Truth be told, we find ourselves constantly battling the impending doom of our family connection at the mercy of the smart phone.

We succumbed to buying cell phones (the stupid kind) for my sons when they entered high school. We were told, quite simply, that preventing them from texting friends would make them social outcasts. Already concerned for them as they faced the difficult transition to a new school, they caught us at a weak moment – we succumbed.

We soon discovered that, for our boys, the phone became another appendage, most often held in the hand, or if we were lucky, in the pocket. Certainly, never more than a quick draw away. Soon after my oldest son, Kole, entered high school, a few of his friends came over and sat in our living room. Jerilyn and I got a rare opportunity to meet his new friends and sit in on what was going on. What became clear quickly was that there was no cell phone etiquette – at any time, in the middle of any conversation, someone would grab their phone to return a text or call out to a friend. How rude! Right? Wrong! This IS acceptable cell phone etiquette today. OMG!

We instituted a new family rule (credit: Brian Frank, Chicago landscape architect) that requires anyone, adults or kids, in our home or car to “Announce Your Disconnection.” In practice, this means that if you are needing to answer your cell phone or view a text, you need to announce to the people in your presence that you need to be excused to reply to your cellphone, and then you need to step outside the circle of conversation. This is just good manners. How many times have you driven your children and their friends somewhere, and you are engaged in a conversation, and you realize that you are speaking with someone who is speaking (or more likely texting) with someone else? It is so deflating. But, it doesn’t have to be. Lets remember our manners, respect our elders, you know, honor our father and mother. It’s in the good book, after all.

Sacred Meals

Cell phone use is not permitted at our table – not today, not ever!

With our boys sequestered in their bedrooms, out with friends, on their cell phones, we could go days without seeing or talking to them. But, we have discovered, that they do need to eat every day. Having dinner together as a family each day has always been a basic value in our home, and has ensured that we have real quality time together, and that they eat good home-cooked meals. We share some gratitude before eating and try to keep the conversation meaningful and inclusive for all.

Cell phone use is not permitted at our table – not today, not ever! We don’t even pick up the old land line phone if it is ringing during a meal. Our time together as a family is so short already. Preventing intrusions from outside helps our family stay (more) connected.

Next Steps

At social gatherings and parties, or dinner out with friends, we are experimenting with asking our guests to leave the cell phones off to keep the connection in. In Sunday’s NY Times (9/20) in an article titled, “Step Away from the Phone,” the author describes a game. When you go out to dinner with friends, you can play something called the “phone stack” game: Everyone places their phones in the middle of the table; whoever looks at their device before the check arrives picks up the tab.

In our home, we are also considering raising the ante. We want to leave a bowl inside the front door of the house with a kind invitation to “leave all cell phones here before entering.” We’ll see if that will fly.

David BrownsteinDavid BrownsteinDavid Brownstein, Executive Director

In 2004, David co-founded and, today, is the Executive Director of Wild Earth, where he seeks to help regenerate healthy community culture and create opportunities for people to connect with themselves, each other and the Earth. Prior to founding Wild Earth, David worked as a wealth advisor on Wall Street for twelve years before realizing a life dream – fully sharing in the care and parenting of his three children, and creating a small family farm. Today, the Brownsteins raise dairy cows, goats, chickens, bees and vegetables in season. David also maintains an active counseling practice called Root Connections, where he focuses on helping individuals, couples, groups and business leaders identify and manifest their unique vision. More about David's work.

28 thoughts on “Keeping it Real: (Dis)Connected in a Smart Phone World”

  1. Misha says:

    Great article! I usually just leave my cell in the car if I am visiting others or going out to eat or to a meeting and turn it off when I go to bed.

    1. David Brownstein says:

      Thanks for your comment, Misha. I would like to say I have the same discipline, but I don’t. I definitely leave it out of my bedroom, but I do bring it with me when I am visiting others and keep it on vibrate. I can make a lot of rationalizations for why, but truth is, it has an addictive quality. Maybe I am “scared” of deeper connection that can come from being FULLY present. I will think about this…

      1. Harrison says:

        Humans are deeply challenged by being alone as well as unoccupied. And the fruits of solitude come from resisting temptations of distraction. Enter The Cell Phone. In one stroke, Industry has removed these twin pillars from our lives, from our growth, from our cultural landscape.

        With each passing generation, as quality of life “increases” with technology and the like, we become less and less able in countless ways. Perhaps the most incipient and damaging ways will be our inabilty to be alone or unoccupied long enough for the natural world to engage us, for conversations to rise and fall unimpeded, for original thinking to emerge more frequently, and to be reminded that community and personal connections are our most nourishing sources.
        And yes, what was once a ritual of eating together, now requires discipline.

  2. Yolanda says:

    Thanks for this great blog post, David! Our family of four went to dinner last night with NO phones — crazy how odd (but good) it felt to leave the house without them. We need to do that more. I’d be curious to hear how other parents deal with social media. Even more than texting, Instagram (Vine, Snapchat,etc.) feeds that urge to check your phone after you’ve posted something. As my kids are increasingly using social media, they feel the constant urge to document and share their experiences – it can be great, but sometimes you lose out on the experience while it’s happening!

    1. David Brownstein says:

      Thanks for your comment, Yolanda. Congratulations on a phone free dinner – Did you all make the conscious choice to do it?

      Jerilyn is insisting on a sabbath from all technology from Friday dinner to Saturday dinner….EVERY WEEK. It scares me, and its hard to do, but I do settle down and engage more in the present moment when I get over the fear and withdrawal.

      1. simonabramson says:

        I did a technology fast for Yom Kippur this year. Time really seemed to slow down – which was great. And… My belly clenches when I think of no screens every Fri-Sat. No phone would be *easy*, but no night’s on the couch w Em catching up on latest episode of a select show would be harder. Maybe Em & I will join y’all in committing to a Shabbat free of technology this weekend.

  3. Amy says:

    We don’t opt for internet connection on our phone plan. Is the computer too far away? Good. Better communication is probably worth the longer time it takes to get back to your less immediate device. Speaking of devices, anyone want to join me in ditching computer-use 1-2 days every week? It makes breathing easier!

    1. David says:

      Thanks for sharing, Amy!

  4. Paul K. says:

    Amen, David! Our oldest daughter, Emily (MLWS ‘ 12) is the only one in her sophomore class that doesn’t have a #%&@$ iPhone. She got a basic flip-phone when she started high school. Sure it puts pressure on parents to make sure their children have equal footing with their peers, but they will also (one day) appreciate not having everything handed to them. I, like many, have a problem when someone – no matter who it is – thinks it’s fine to carry on a conversation (typically unimportant, mindless banter) in public, just because they have nothing better to do! I say, try this: only use your phone when no one else will see you doing so.

    1. David says:

      I love this suggestion, Paul. Do you remember when you used to have to go into a phone booth (with glass walls) when you wanted to speak on the phone in public. Can you imagine trying to explain that to your children – they wouldn’t believe it!

  5. Jacky says:

    Louie CK speaking to this issue in an interview.

    1. David Brownstein says:

      Awesome, Jacky!

  6. Michelle says:

    It seems to me that addressing the problems of cell phone use dependance, the constant need to stay connected, and the affects on a person and their community may cause tension NOW, but will pay off later. I grew up with the internet. At 14 I was so connected with kids outside of my physical circle that I’d be so emotionally upset if I didn’t get to talk to them at a scheduled time…because I was out with my family! It took a while for me to sign up for Facebook in college, but once I did I was totally addicted. Now, I realize the way it has affected me negatively, and how I very much want to connect with others in that deeply fulfilling way, that I set my own limitations because I’m aware of my tendency to be hooked to the technology. Also – I have a stupid phone…I wonder if things will change if I get a smart phone. And as a substitute teacher it is really hard to break student habits of using their cellphones because you can’t physically take the phones due to theft allegations if they aren’t returned to the students promptly – so what leverage to teachers really have? Anyway – instilling that real connectedness is most important to community, placing limitations, implementing these rules may cause tension now, but it brings up an awareness in behavior that payoff in the future.

    1. David says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Michelle

  7. michael ridolfo says:

    thanks to david and all who have contributed –
    working at mohonk I see as many parents/adults who are as beholden to their smartphones as their children are.
    the average child text 3000 times per month. that’s 100 per day. and we as parents allow it. we pay for it, we buy into the cultural pressure and we even participate in it. (I personally don’t text at all. zero. and no one texts me). my stepson (19) will always ask permission to leave the dinner table or suspend a conversation to make or take an important call or text. we know its important cuz he explains to us the nature of it. we won’t be BS’d.
    whenever i’m teaching or leading a nature hike I require that everyone turns their phone off. I try to inspire them that there is value in letting go of modern technology for an hour or two. and that’s enough time for mama to work her magic. ‘yeah but it’s also my camera’. how do I reconcile that one? that’ll be part of another post.
    there are many inherent hazards here….an important one: because of smartphones, children in our culture are NEVER without the influence of adults. if they’re holding their phone, it was manufactured by adults. adults designed it, generate the power for it, invest billions in marketing, write the software, create apps to sell for profit, and so on. adults are calling them. bothering them. because they too are addicted to their technology. when does a child interact solely with other children anymore? when do they create things with their own hands from debris from the woods or seashore or wherever? how do they build deep bonds with other children? resolve social issues? learn the cardinal directions? learn about gravity, friction coefficient and angular momentum if they’ve never fallen from a tree or a swingset??
    I’ve attached a video lecture from MIT open courseware. its kinda long but its really worth watching this top lecturer in one of the world’s greatest universities apply his skill. he’s fierce, fair, funny and holds his students up to the highest level of integrity. why? to prepare them for life. you can FF up to about 30 minutes to his codes of conduct lecture. but….at around 33 minutes, the topic of cell phones comes up. notice this is from 1994. let me know what you think.

  8. josh roberts says:

    I love listening to the music in the mountain stream, sitting by a campfire with friends, playing some music, falling a sleep to the sound of the owl, dreaming dreams under the stars and talking on my phone the next day to share the experience or listening to a friend then talk about their life. Hopefully me and my friend can met up and do what we love and what grounds us. I love being part of the world and express myself in all ways.

    The more I can share with others the better. Phone, internet or not how I conduct myself is very powerfully indeed (mamma didn’t rise me to be no slave I hope but sometime wonder if that is true). Cultural taboos serve a good purpose but need testing and questioning just the same as anything. My advice to myself is to try something new that helps me and uplift someone else. A Phone is a good choice for a tool but comes with a price. I like good knife or better yet the wisdom and knowledge beyond the blade. I can do so much more with the knowledge and awareness of how to use the world around me than be limited to a phone or computer but those tools are great to get in other ways and hold both knowledge and wisdom . I will say a phone is handy to call for help (hopefully you have service) or check in with a love one but it is no replacement for the earth just part of it like us all. OMG, I need to a good waterproof case.

    keep up to good works folks

    1. David Brownstein says:

      Thanks for this response, Josh. Love and miss you!

  9. Thomas Meli says:

    I love this post David and love everyone’s comments. I also note with care and subtle irony that most of the comments are written by people within a 30 minute drive of each other and I haven’t seen many of you in an informal space for a while. I know some of us have actively been trying to see each other, and it hasn’t happened.

    I wonder if technological-dependent communication is fed by a kind of time-scarcity and a reduction of human relationship to something instrumental… that what we are losing is in some way “being together to be together.” – The village feel. Co-Presencing the world with each other instead of coming together to ‘do’ something all the time. I wonder.

    I know that in myself, I sometimes “give power to technology” because I am actually longing for deeper connection, but fear doing so in person will result in some kind of “interruption.” I also can use technology as a crutch to “be seen in a way I can control.” – I think part of being in person is that we are vulnerable to the thousands of unconscious messages we send with our bodies, with our split second responses… and I like the idea that I have control over what is sent – technology gives me the illusion of that control… at the very cost of how vital all those unconscious communications are.

    I also fear losing self-connection in social situations, but behind my safe computer I can self-connect and “be in choice” about when and how I respond.

    I also agree – in a technology-dependent world, very clear boundaries and agreements around when a technology is used can greatly enhance clarity about this.

    The deepest question I have is – what will make turning off phones desirable (especially for adolescents)? In order to answer that we must first ask what makes phones desireable in the first place? How can we meet those needs in better ways than the phones do? I see that as our current challenge.

    I think it will entail a ton of vulnerability and self-honesty, because I know for me, as I’ve mentioned above – I can hide an awful lot of vulnerability behind technology.

    Perhaps the deeper problem is not so much technology itself, but a kind of relationhip-poverty in which people are simply instruments or obstacles instead of beautiful human beings doing the best we know how to contribute to making life more wonderful and keeping that which gives us life alive. Perhaps forgetting the simple beauty of relationships and the cultural technologies that facilitate them is what seems to make phone-type technological connection actually feel satisfying to us.

    Collectively there is room for some revolutionary play here. Perhaps for one day a week we can agree as a community to be in touch with each other in “old” ways. Literally trying to track each other down, or just visiting each other randomly, or sending handwritten letters snail mail style, sending a runner to someone’s house with a message, or through good old village gossip that so-and-so wants to talk with so-and-so about that-crazy-thing.

    By making this kind of communication more fun and special, phones simply become boring, and shutting them off becomes easier.

    I’m going to experiment with that and see what happens. :). Keep your eyes and ears out for old style communications from me.

    With love,

    1. David Brownstein says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Tom. I really enjoyed our face-to-face time, tracking in the snow yesterday. Made met day.

      1. Thomas Meli says:

        It was lovely for me too David, thanks so much for reaching out and inviting me. :)

  10. Ellie Brunning says:

    We have never allowed phones at the table at home. If my son is looking at phone more than a moment while we are enjoying a movie, I simply turn off the movie or pause it and smile. I wait for him to be done then continue. Funny, the need to look at his phone during pre existing entertainment decreases quickly, especially if he picked the movie! Yesterday I thanked a customer in my store for cutting off a conversation at the door. I began to think I may place a sign, please turn phone to vibrate and take any calls out of doors so as my customers and I may enjoy our shopping experience fully. Just an idea so far, but that’s how it starts! Thanks David, Ellie Brunning

    1. David Brownstein says:

      Thanks, Ellie. I love the idea of asking people to leave their phone at the door of your store. We did that at Thanksgiving this year – everyone had to leave their phones in a basket at the door. Much nicer holiday.

  11. Jasper says:

    True…and how many of us are connecting to this via “smartphone”…I know I am… And would not have read this otherwise… Hmmmm

    1. David Brownstein says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jasper. Yes, there are certainly positive aspects of being connected with smart phone technology. Personally, speaking, however, I find that I can get addicted to checking and re-checking my phone. I want to be connected with the people I am with too.

  12. yolobuttttttssss says:

    good thing i have a regular phone:)

  13. LIZ BORREGO says:

    muy bieeee
    en y si no hacen caso,quitele los tel a los hijos,REGLAS SON REGLAS EN CASA.

  14. taneasia gray says:

    does anyone know meghan trainors phone number

  15. Amy White says:

    Excellent article (although I had to check my email to read it hah, hah) our sons’ school asks us to be screen free. Even though we are not totally screen free even the reduction in screen time makes a different for our 5.6 year old. Attending Wild Earth during the Summer allowed us to see the wildly calm child that emerge. Phones are not allowed at our table and we often wonder what happened before the smartphone. We, as parents recall our mothers’ saying “You look like you need some fresh air.” Then, the door closed and click the lock, locked. During those Summer months we never came home, not even to eat, we drank from the hose and kept going. How refreshing to have our little one experience this in a very different world.

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