“We can go bowling,” I offer, noticing a bill-board for an amusement park up ahead. “Or play mini-golf, if its open.” “I brought a light-up frisbee,” my husband pipes in. “We’ll have a catch on the beach.” Our 13-year-old son stares unblinkingly out the window, slack-jawed and miserable. We’ve separated him from his phone, and he’s mad. As a therapist, I want to empathize with what he’s going through and help him sit with those feelings. As a mom, I want to cheer him up and dispel the pall that’s settled over us since we left home 90 minutes ago to start our five-day, tech-free family vacation.
I’m pretty sure most parents alive today would agree that separating a child from their favorite device qualifies as a 21st-century Herculean feat. This morning, when we put our son’s smartphone in the safe, he followed me around the house, stricken, even though he’d known for weeks about our plan to go deviceless. “You can’t take it away!” he pleaded. “I need one more minute! I have to text my friends goodbye!” I was tempted to hand it back, saying, “Hurry up,” but I’ve learned that giving in to one-more-minute requests only prolongs the agony of device separation since, after granting the first request, another one always follows.
Our son is generally cooperative, but because we inhabit different realities—especially when it comes to technology—it’s never easy for any of us when we hold the line firmly on devices. A Gen-Zer to the core, our son values the continuous, unfettered access technology gives him to information, entertainment, and other people—true or false, meaningful or fluff, benevolent or malevolent. In contrast, my husband and I—a Boomer and a GenXer, respectively—value low-stress activities, environments, and entertainment. As a result, the three of us spend more time arguing about screentime rules than anything else in our lives.
On this trip, we don’t have our phones, either. They’re powered off and buried in our suitcase under Cheaters Monopoly, bean bags, toiletries, and clothes. We’re committed to checking them only once a day, for five minutes at most, after our son is asleep—not to surf the internet, play Wordle, visit social media feeds, or respond to emails, but to confirm that our house hasn’t caught fire and nobody close to us is in an emergency room. We want our son to witness his parents engaged in device-free living, and to experience this anachronistic pleasure for himself.
“Didn’t we do mini-golf last time?” I ask, hoping our son will chime in.
“I bet they’ve opened the boardwalk.” My husband rescues me from a long silence—notably devoid of our son’s response to my question. “There’s that store with the cotton candy you like.” But even the mention of his favorite food doesn’t snap him out of his funk.
This isn’t our first tech-free vacation. As painful as they are in the beginning, we know at some point our son will make it through phase one—a device withdrawal period, where irritability, restlessness, and misery coalesce into emotional outbursts and stonewalling. This phase lasts anywhere from two to four hours. In the second phase, device-free family interactions aren’t so torturous. Our son no longer reacts explosively or stonewalls. When you ask him a question, he responds promptly and with a degree of civility. He even regains his ability to single-task. Once we reach the third, coveted phase, our interactions flow, again, without the need for digital distractions. Our son’s neurochemistry returns to baseline.
I heard all about the challenges of raising kids before I became a parent. You had to concern yourself with anxiety-invoking questions like, Are they hitting their milestones, acquiring language, sleeping enough? When they became toddlers, you tackled new questions. Can they engage in free play and take turns, navigate transitions, and stay focused? In elementary school, the questions changed. Are they clear about the difference between fantasy and reality? Can they manage stress and resolve age-appropriate problems? The questions got scarier for teens. Are they having unprotected sex? Doing drugs?
But no one could’ve warned me about the questions parents grapple with now. Are kids posting pictures of my child to social media feeds and asking their followers to rate how ugly they are on a scale from one to ten? What are the chances my kid might attempt a potentially lethal TikTok challenge involving over-the-counter medications? What’s the long-term impact on developing brains of toggling back and forth between real life and screens 24/7?
Parenting today means something different from what it did 15, 13, or even 10 years ago. It means doing battle—a battle it often feels like you can’t win—with screens, the internet, and every new form of modern tech, like ChatGPT and OpenAI, all to hang onto opportunities for what Robert Waldinger, director of an 85-year-long Harvard study on well-being, identified as the single most important factor for mental and physical health: good relationships. Kids need to navigate all kinds of interpersonal highs and lows to figure out how to have good relationships. They need to engage in ordinary moments of connection, disconnection, and reconnection with other baffling, captivating, flesh-and-blood human beings. And because relationships are so complicated, they need to do it a lot.
Since our son was born—three years after the first iPhone was released—I noticed opportunities for this type of spontaneous, three-dimensional connection dwindling. More people were choosing to interact with friends, family, and colleagues through screens, engaging in what Esther Perel calls “the other AI: artificial intimacy.” The pandemic supercharged this trend. Because our government—unlike those in European countries—does little or nothing to prevent tech giants from investing billions in keeping kids scrolling, swiping, gaming, and consuming online content, my husband and I—like many parents today—have had to cobble together our own strategies to limit screentime for our son.
These strategies include having family meetings where we establish and reestablish our household screentime rules. We print out the latest set of guidelines and tape them to the backs of doors around our house for reference. We keep Richard Freed’s article “The Tech Industry’s War on Kids” lying around for our son to read (which he has) in the hope that he’ll refuse to play video games engineered to hack into his reward pathways (which he hasn’t). At skateboard parks, on soccer fields, and in school hallways, we commiserate with and pick the brains of other anxious, tech-wary parents trying to find a middle ground between denial (“screens are fine”) and catastrophizing (“screens are completely ruining my kid’s life”).
We’ve intentionally allowed our son to venture out in our neighborhood by himself since he was nine years old, gradually expanding the circumference of how far away from home he can travel by foot, on a skateboard, and on a bike, trusting that his own common sense and our many discussions about safety have equipped him to navigate challenges. He’s curious about the world and savvy about people. He likes figuring stuff out for himself. But screens are different.
Recently, a neighbor pulled me aside at a flag-football game and said, “I know you’re a therapist. Do you work with adolescents? My son’s addicted to his Oculus. He stands in his bedroom all day long with this ugly thing on his face like he’s some enormous, futuristic bug, swinging his arms around and kicking the air. He skips meals. When I try to take the headset away from him, he yells at me. I don’t know what to do.”
A fellow volunteer chaperone on a field trip to the National Zoo—a widowed father—told me in the back of a school bus, amidst a cacophony of middle schoolers crashing from sugary breakfasts, “My daughter’s grades have tanked. It started when the schools lent the kids computers to take home. She gets distracted online instead of completing assignments, and when I try to place limits on what she can browse, she uses incognito mode to hide her search history. Why do the schools put us in this position? Kids need books, not screens.”
In “Craving Device-Free Attention,” a 2019 Networker article, Martha Straus calls the everyday intrusions and interruptions in family life caused by modern devices technoference: the slow drip of messages on text threads; the random Alexa notifications; the videos popping up on YouTube; the flashy TikTok memes; the overstimulating survival games; the social media alerts; SoundCloud musicians rapping into kids’ ears about money, fame, and sex through AirPods they keep hidden under hoodies in cars, at school, and sometimes, if you’re not on your parenting A-game, at the dinner table. Many of us have been coping with technoference for well over a decade, even if we haven’t known what to call it. Based on the growing number of parents seeking counseling for kids hooked on screens, and the growing number of kids complaining about checked-out parents on computers and phones, technoference seems to have ratcheted up gradually and imperceptibly in modern families, like water heating up around frogs.
One winter, we thought our son had contracted a low-grade virus. There were dark circles under his eyes. He’d become listless and irritable and was complaining of back pain. We scheduled a doctor’s visit, but the day before the appointment, I heard a noise in the middle of the night, tiptoed downstairs, and found him huddled in a corner of the living room, his face lit up by the eerie glow of a computer screen. For weeks, he’d been sneaking downstairs, breaking into a locked file cabinet where we kept the iPad, and signing onto his Roblox account.
Did we go astray, as parents? Should we have followed the parenting advice on waituntil8th.org and forbidden smartphones till eighth grade? We considered it, but at age 11, his phonelessness had already become an obstacle to bonding with other kids. He claimed it relegated him to the bottom of his peer group’s social hierarchy. We bought him a phone with no apps on it, one that couldn’t access the internet, so he could make plans with friends and call us when he was out of the house, but in the end, the cons of the low-tech phone solution seemed to outweigh the pros. “Where’d you get that from, the Stone Age?” other kids teased him. At night, when I smoothed a blanket over his shoulders and kissed his forehead, the last thing he murmured before closing his eyes was, “I hate school.” He complained about his classmates connecting on Fortnite. “They’re all on Snapchat, Instagram, and Gas,” he said. “I have no friends.” Now, given the endless string of pings, dings and rhythmic, pulsing vibrations coming from his phone, you’d think he was a Hollywood celebrity.
My husband turns on his blinker and changes lanes as a silver Tesla speeds by. The driver isn’t focused on the road. One hand is on the wheel. The other holds a phone.
“I can’t believe that guy’s texting someone at 80 miles an hour,” I snort. “Technology gets smarter, and people get stupider.”
“Mom, you blame technology for everything,” our son interjects from the backseat.
My husband and I look at each other.
“I’m so bored,” he groans.
“Boredom is good.” Telling a newly minted teenager boredom is good is like telling Superman kryptonite is refreshing, but at this point, I’ll say anything to keep him engaged.
“Boredom sucks balls,” he declares with characteristic succinctness.
“Language,” my husband warns.
“How is balls a bad word?! Come on!” he impugns. “Basketballs, tennis balls, golf balls. You guys have such dirty minds.” Now he’s smirking.
My husband gives me a beseeching glance, the meaning of which isn’t lost on me: Are you sure we can’t pull over, grab a phone, and let him distract himself on it for a while? It’ll make the drive so much easier. I glare at him: We’ve come this far. We’re not giving up.
Leaves flutter along the branches of trees flanking the highway. The trunks appear off-center, angled away from each other as if the soil holding their roots in place is losing its grip. I don’t remember trees looking this sickly when I was a kid in a car with my own parents.
“How about we listen to the radio?” I ask, trying a new tack.
“It’s good to be bored,” our son says smugly, clearly thrilled at the chance to use my own sanctimony against me. I don’t blame him; I brought it on myself.
“We’ll drive in silence, then.” My husband’s patience is fraying.
“This is going to be the worst vacation ever,” our son mutters under his breath. He’s mastered the art of speaking softly enough for a statement to seem private but loudly enough for us to hear every word.
“Okay, bathroom break,” I announce, scared that we’re backsliding into phase one. We need to get out of the car for a couple of minutes. An exit ramp leads into a suburban neighborhood with low buildings, gas stations, fast food drive-throughs, and—seemingly in the middle of nowhere—an empty playground. I scan the equipment. There’s a slide, a plastic log cabin, a merry-go-round, and monkey bars. A familiar ache fills my stomach. All that’s missing are the kids.
I hardly ever see kids in playgrounds anymore. They all seem to have vanished into thin air. I tell myself it’s a coincidence. I want to believe I look at the wrong times of day, but I know in my heart something else is going on. The world has changed more in two generations separating us from our son than in all the previous generations separating parents and kids before us.
We park in front of a Wawa and tumble out of the car, yawning and stretching. I make my way through the glass doors toward a sign indicating a restroom beyond the snack aisles stuffed with every shape, size, color, and type of candy imaginable. Once inside, I squeeze past a woman in her 20s who’s standing in front of the only sink, though she’s not washing her hands.
“Are you serious?” she screeches, as if this were a private phone booth rather than a public restroom. “You must be out of your mind! I could get arrested for that!”
There are two stalls. I choose the one furthest from her and latch the door.
“No way, take my advice, don’t invite him,” she says. “Your boss will blow a gasket.”
Even after I flush and leave the stall, she’s still blocking the sink, phone in hand. I sidle in next to her, twisting the faucet and taking my time pumping soap from the dispenser and washing my hands. When I turn, she’s glaring at me, lips pursed in disapproval. I suppress an impulse to snatch her phone, throw it in a toilet, and flush. Instead, I grab a paper towel. As the door swings closed behind me, I hear her tell whoever she’s talking to, “Sorry. Some weird lady making a ton of noise.”
“Road trip bingo?” our son suggests when we’re all in the car again. He’s eating Skittles.
I notice my hand rummaging around one of the zippered inside pockets of my purse. What’s it doing? It moves into a different pocket, and into a pouch under the front flap. A wave of emotion roils through me—shock, then shame. I feel like I’m one of those hard-boiled detectives who’s been investigating a crime only to discover, in a chilling plot twist, their own fingerprints on the murder weapon. Without being aware of it, I’m looking for my phone.
God only knows how many times, over the years, my hand has palmed the bedside table in the middle of the night, palpated napkins in restaurants, and squeezed jeans and coats. It’s developed a self-soothing habit for which it was never evolutionarily programmed. Whenever I feel uncertain or uncomfortable, my phone-seeking hand tries its best to deliver a distraction in the form of a text, email, podcast, song on a Spotify playlist, selfie, trending news story, or social media post. It expects my phone to be an arm’s length away because my phone almost always is an arm’s length away. More than any other object I possess—driver’s license, passport, house keys, credit card, even a wedding ring, which I take off in the summer when my fingers swell—my phone is practically never not there, within easy reach.
“Ready, Mom?” Our son hands me a road trip bingo card. An illustration at the top depicts a white, 1950s family of four, all smiling in a vintage vehicle with cards similar to ours—except for the dad who, unlike the texting Tesla driver, has his eyes on the road. The italicized words “Family Fun!” float in the blue space of the windshield.
“One. Two.” Our son pauses dramatically. “Three. Go!”
Road trip bingo involves scanning the environment for man-made objects like firetrucks, smokestacks, and parking meters and then sliding bluish, see-through tabs over the corresponding images on the card. Once you’ve covered a row of five objects, you call out, “Bingo!” I scan the horizon for firetrucks, parking meters, and smokestacks. There are none. Trees give way to a cement barrier, which segues into a row of townhouses. A green and white-spotted sign approaches until the spots coalesce into the placename of our destination.
We have two more hours to go.
By the time we arrive, I’ve lost three consecutive road trip bingo games. The sun is setting. I take the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches out of the cooler and my husband finds plates in the kitchen cabinet. Together we set the table outside. Seagulls flap their wings, change direction, and settle into colonies on the beach. Waves crash along the shore.
Sounds, smells, and tastes seem new and different, somehow. Colors appear vivid.
We eat slowly. Our son points at the waves and a fin pops up, then another, each one attached to a glistening, magnificent, eggplant-purple body that surfaces for a couple of seconds, straddling two worlds, before disappearing under the surface of the water again.
After we eat, my husband takes the frisbee out of his backpack.
Our son runs barefoot across the dunes. The frisbee lights up.
I dig my toes into the sand, watching their arms extend, following the frisbee’s fading light-trail, listening to their voices call out to each other beneath the darkening sky. I’m surprised by how much I’ve missed living like this, in awe of small, everyday moments, in what feels like a completely different universe than the one we inhabit when our high-tech devices are powered on and accessible. It’s the same universe. But we aren’t the same inside it. We’re different when it comes to how deeply we’re able to connect.
Main illustration © Giordano Aita
Second illustration © Asta Concept
Alicia Muñoz, LPC, is a certified couples therapist, and author of four relationship books, including Stop Overthinking Your Relationship: Break the Cycle of Anxious Rumination to Nurture Love, Trust, and Connection With Your Partner (New Harbinger Publications, 2022). Over the past 16 years, she’s provided individual, group, and couples therapy in clinical settings, including Bellevue Hospital in New York, NY. Muñoz currently works as a Senior Writer and Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and as a couples therapist in private practice. She connects with her readers and followers through monthly blogs, newsletters, and podcasts as well as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Muñoz is a member of the Washington School of Psychiatry, the American Psychological Association, and the Mid-Atlantic Association of Imago and Relationship Therapists. You can learn more about her at www.aliciamunoz.com.