When father-of-four Mark Ellis turned off his family’s internet router on a whim one Sunday morning, he didn’t expect it to change their lives for good.
Realising that the family’s devices were taking over their lives, Mark and his wife Caroline decided to start “tech-free Sundays” and operate a digital curfew every evening.
Now, more than three years into their experiment, Mark, who is a co-founder of bowel cancer charity Red Trouser Day, has written about their experiences in his book Digitox.
Why did you start your digital detox?
One Sunday morning we were sat having breakfast and everyone’s noses were buried in their devices. I stomped into the study, unplugged the router and announced that the internet was off for the rest of the day. And as we all know, once you’ve said something you have to stick with it.
The kids stamped and sulked, and then after an hour went out to shoot each other with Nerf guns. There were lots of arguments that day. When I turned it back on they all immediately grabbed their devices and I knew it wasn’t right, so we decided to carry on.
At first we just did tech-free Sundays but as we noticed things getting better we decided to do evenings from 7pm as well. When we found the kids were getting up at 5am to get their fix we changed it to 7pm to 7am. Now they are getting older it is 8pm to 7am.
Was it hard? Who for?
Day one was relatively easy because it was a bit of a novelty. By week two it was definitely not a novelty anymore. There was a lot of anger, bad moods and frustration, and a lot of “typical” teenage behaviour that we hadn’t really seen before.
My wife Caroline is very creative and wouldn’t care if she lost her phone. But I have always worked in the tech industry and had the latest gadgets. It was very, very hard for me.
It took about six to eight weeks before it started to get easier, and about four months to break the habit.
As time has gone on we have decided to be flexible in some areas. We take photos on Sundays using our phones but don’t share them until the next day, for example, and if at least three of us want to watch something together on Netflix we will stream it.
How do you spend your tech-free Sundays?
We fill the time with things like church, bike rides, National Trust properties, swimming, baking competitions and cinema trips. It sounds a bit Famous Five but now we all breathe a sigh of relief when we drop our phones in the box in the kitchen. I can’t remember the last time I actually had to turn off the router.
Now it’s more that technology is a tool and we can easily put it down. It’s nice to take a break from the “work” of the technology.
I remember watching the Eurovision Song Contest and realising it was much more fun to laugh along together as a family with no pressure to “perform” for the outside world on Twitter.
“Parents have to break their own addiction first. There’s no point telling children they can’t have technology on Sundays if you don’t apply it to yourself as well”
What has surprised you most?
Because we have been doing this a long time there is no shortage of things that have surprised me. My three oldest children have now gone through the point where they are “supposed” to be tantrumming, and they haven’t. Of course they have their moments but they haven’t had that rebellion that others do. Our children have had to talk and compromise every evening.
I think it has influenced their school grades. Two of our children have gone up to the top sets from the middle sets since we started. Sometimes they print things out to do homework on a Sunday and there is some evidence that learning takes place better from paper than from screens.
It has also improved our sleep. I wear a Fitbit which monitors sleep patterns and you can see that taking the phone out of the bedroom has a positive impact. It tells me there’s more going on in our subconscious than we realise. We all sleep better now that we turn our phones off and leave them outside the bedroom.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to do something similar?
Parents have to do the heavy lifting and break their own addiction first. There’s no point telling children they can’t have technology on Sundays if you don’t apply it to yourself as well. Kids and teenagers feel neglected when parents spend too much time on their phones.
I suggest that one of the adults in the house needs to do an evening off first to see how it feels. You might find it’s not as easy as you think. Then go on to try a day, then another day the next week and so on.
Once you are doing that, then try adding evenings. If you go straight into evenings you will always find an excuse like “I need my phone for an alarm clock” or “I need to check my work email” or “I need to know who that actor is right now”. I think it’s the combination of Sundays and evenings that works so well.
Would you be tempted to detox further?
I wouldn’t want to withdraw any further. Everything’s great in moderation. It’s good to be able to Facetime my oldest at university, for example. There are always times when I wish I could retreat to a log cabin with no electricity, but you don’t want to step back too much from the society we are in and miss out on the benefits of technology.
I wouldn’t want to send my daughter off to school without her phone or expose my children to peer pressure. I have to equip them to cope in the world and it’s stupid to reject all that’s good about it.
READ: Find out more about the family’s digital detox at digitoxbook.com
FOLLOW: Mark is on Twitter at @CultureEffect
TRY: Get ideas for your own tech-free Sundays from Liat Hughes Joshi’s book How to Unplug Your Child: 101 Ways to Help Your Kids Turn Off Their Gadgets and Enjoy Real Life.