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Digitox – by Mark Ellis

Three years ago we decided to give up the internet for one day a week. Why? Because one Sunday I looked around and the whole family were on their gadgets – each in their own little world, and I had a  ‘Dad moment’ – marching into the hall and disconnecting the internet, switching off the computers and removing all the phones.

There are six in our family – seven, if you count the dog. Myself, my wife, Caroline, and four children – Ben (18), Gabriel (15), Jessica (13) and Noah (seven). When we cancelled the technology for the day, we were expecting a little ‘fallout’ but nothing like the cataclysmic tantrums that followed.

We’ve got three years of experience at this now; with over 150 Digital Detox days under our belt since our shaky start, we’re a whole lot closer as a family than we used to be – and healthier, happier, safer and smarter too.

However, I was probably the most addicted, and the biggest cause of my family’s problem with the internet and gadget fixation.

As a parent, I know I set an example, and as a society we’re causing a repeat cycle of neglect by teaching our children that they must compete with a gadget for attention while providing the illusion that having a smartphone is necessary for survival. I was neglecting Caroline, the children and my own mental well-being.

One morning, just before we started having our ‘No Tech Sundays’, I was preparing for a business trip to Germany and my phone requested an update, which I ‘approved’ and then went about my business – but it didn’t work out well.

As I collected my bags and placed them in the car, I returned to get the phone, only to find that the update hadn’t worked properly – and my phone was now back to ‘new’ state, with none of my apps, games, email or preferences stored. I’d love to say I responded calmly and rationally, but I threw a shouty fit worthy of a hormonal teenager.

You see, my flight tickets were there, my email instructions for the taxi, the hotel directions, my e-books, my games, my news, my weather. How could I cope with venturing on a business trip without these things! Running madly to my laptop I printed out the flight tickets, ran to the car and started the hour-long drive to London while continuing my tantrum.

Retrospectively, it was a truly embarrassing episode. I was shaking, yelling and stressed when the reality was that my laptop had all the information I needed held within, and my smartphone was reduced to the role of ‘telephone’ for a couple of days (until I returned home and restored the back-up). The world had not stopped turning.

The fallout on that first Sunday confirmed my fears that I wasn’t the only addict in the family, and being stubborn parents, Caroline and I decided to persist. One of the first things we did was start to plan for the following Sunday.

With the gadgets placed into a box and the internet router unplugged, we had to find a way to distract everyone from their withdrawal symptoms, and made a list of the things that we could do that didn’t involve technology. We came up with cinema, swimming, cycling, gardening, church and pub – all good smartphone-challenging options.

Church for us starts at 10.30 a.m, and runs for around an hour and a half, depending on the mood of the band, the congregation and the amount of cake served afterwards. It’s also tough to catch up on Facebook, and not that many seem to feel the need to tweet about the preaching (unlike at conferences or in meetings), and while I’d love to say we go every week, in our crazy life it’s simply not possible. But when we can it makes an excellent, mindful, tech-free start to the day – and without the gadget temptation at home – we get more of the family there more often.

Most of the time I leave church feeling challenged and thoughtful, appreciating the fact that I took a few hours from my day to focus on my spiritual well-being, but before we started our internet diet, I couldn’t wait to grab hold of the phone and start catching up on the virtually connected world of social media, news, weather and a multitude of other things. The rest of the family would typically follow, and before long we would all be pursuing our own interests.

So, do we give up the gadgets every week for godly reasons? No. While I know people who digitally fast during Lent, our motivation was a great deal more selfish, dictatorial and parental.

We recognised that the amount of time that the children were spending online had formed an addiction, and no parent wants to encourage that. But most of us tolerate it as part of the modern world – we accept that there is no choice, that ‘the internet’ is a life skill essential for survival.

None of us want our children to be the ‘outcasts’ at school. When I was growing up, there was a family near us who did not allow TV in their house – they felt it was a damaging influence. Before that, people threw clogs into machines in an effort to destroy them.

Technology marches forwards, and there is little we can (or should) do to stop it, but the internet, and the wonderful gadgets that enable it, affect us all in that it has become an ever-present force in our lives.

If we were surrounded by a constant supply of free food and drink, we would be likely to pick out our favourite things (sweets, chocolate, crisps, burgers, lemonade etc.) and gorge ourselves on them until we were unfit and obese. There is a physical limit to how much anyone can consume, and if we saw our children ballooning in size, we would step in and do something about it.

So why the addiction to the internet? Our desire to fit in with society gives rise to the compulsion for the latest smartphone and a good data plan to use it. This in turn feeds our hunger and the more we do things that we like (such as, indulge in technology) the more we want to do it. Our natural curiosity amplifies this, and before we know it we’re part of a mental arms race to do more, see more, and search for that ‘bigger hit’.

Addiction is bad, and not just addiction to drugs or alcohol.

We have friends who have divorced because of porn addiction. I know people who have lost their jobs after being repeatedly warned about using work computers for viewing it, and I have seen what children download to their computers – and trust me, it’s not artistic nudes from Playboy.

Gaming addiction is a significant factor in examination failures at school, and is a close cousin of internet addiction.

By accepting that I was addicted to the internet, it became easier to see that the children were heading down the same route, and neither Caroline nor I wanted that to get any worse. So the gadgets go away at night, and on Sundays – and this teaches us that we can manage without them, and that makes it easier to resist the addiction.

Without the internet, it’s amazing how creative things get in our house. A few weeks ago, Jessica decided that we should all go for a picnic, and baked scones all morning – which we packed together with some jam and cream, a picnic blanket, some lemonade (and a bottle of Prosecco) and headed off for an afternoon at Cliveden House. Our family National Trust and Blenheim Palace cards are the best investments we ever made. We took lots of lovely photos on the phone to remember the day by, but we didn’t share them right away. We stayed in the moment, and posted some for our family to see the following day instead.

Caroline has been designing circular walk and children’s adventure booklets on behalf of the Chipping Norton Deanery – local villagers have designed some fantastic short rambles around Chipping Norton, Charlbury, Hook Norton and beyond – and we’ve been exploring new places and boosting our step counts as a family too. Thanks to the booklets, we haven’t needed to use the phone as a mapping device, and we’ve also managed to dig out some old Ordinance Survey maps to teach the children some basic orienteering skills. I realise this sounds a little ‘Famous Five’, but climbing over trees, streams and hedges together is a lot of fun, and does make finding new pubs that bit more rewarding.

Living in the UK doesn’t make outdoor pursuits that attractive on some days; with the rain pouring down and the internet on hold for the day we have a whole back-up plan in place to avoid the inevitable increase in the “I’m bored” chorus. These are the days when we really have to be creative together; the board games come into their own, and although playing Monopoly or Risk is not always conflict-free, we’ve found some great alternatives such as Ticket to Ride which, when coupled with a gin and tonic, makes a great way to spend an afternoon.

All our weekend jobs get done faster too. Asking the children to mow the lawn, collect the eggs, walk the dog or empty the dishwasher is met with a lot less resistance, and we only have to ask once instead of competing with the gadgets for attention.

And we have exceptions too. While the internet is off limits for personal use, if we all decide to watch a film together then we’ll stream one to the TV – but ‘together’ is key. Given the chance, the children used to binge watch whatever they liked, wherever they liked. One would be in the kitchen watching Transformers, another in the living room watching Heartland on Netflix, one with a tablet watching YouTube… you get the idea.

On our day off, everyone has to agree on what to watch, one of the habits which reduces conflict all week long. Not long ago, we all decided to watch Eurovision together – a truly memorable evening that was a lot more fun than you might think. We were tempted to join in the Twitter debate, but managed to resist, instead trying (and failing) to outperform Graham Norton’s brilliant commentary.

It’s is becoming harder to hear God in an increasingly noisy world. I am 45 years old, and I’ve never been as comfortable with my faith or felt as close to God as I do now. As a family we’ve become involved in more Christian projects, the Chipping Norton Deanery Pilgrim Path project, a community, not-for-profit coffee shop (FLTR Coffee) in a nearby housing development, Cherish – a youth outreach programme/mission as part of Emmanuel Church in Bicester, and Parable Garden which brings people closer to God through contact with the earth and quiet reflection.

We have noticed huge benefits within our family over the last few years. We’ve seen a lot less stereotypical teenage behaviour, improved social skills, an increase in grades at school, boosted creativity and an improvement in both physical and mental health.

But it wasn’t an easy journey, which is why I wrote the book – to help others with the same challenges that we faced. We would have done things differently, and made our life a little easier, but there is no doubt in our minds that starting our weekly ‘Digitox’ was the best thing that we’ve ever done for our family.

Digitox: How to find a healthy balance for your family’s digital diet by Mark Ellis is out now, published by CultureTransform £9.95 Paperback