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  • Writer's pictureDr Kalanit Ben-Ari

Reclaiming Family Holidays: A Psychologist's Journey Through Digital Detox

In the lead-up to our family ski holiday in Italy, my partner and I faced a familiar parental dilemma: the gap between our aspirations for family togetherness and the reality of teenage preoccupation with social media and headphones. Navigating the digital divide between generations has become an increasingly complex challenge for parents, especially during family holidays—a time traditionally dedicated for togetherness, bonding, and joy. 

teen screen parenting

However, the reality of family holidays often starkly contrasts with teenagers more absorbed in their online worlds than the physical one unfolding around them. The allure of staying updated with friends, scrolling through the latest social media posts, engaging in FaceTime conversations, and enjoying music through headphones can overshadow the value and richness of new experiences, particularly for young minds in a foreign setting.

Despite recognising and understanding the adolescent pull towards independence and their social circles, we couldn't shake off the longing for genuine family bonding, fully aware that university life would soon widen the gap between us.

Our turning point came during a nostalgic conversation about our travels to Australia and New Zealand over 20 years ago, a time before the era of smartphones. For those of a certain age, you'll recall when holidays meant truly disconnecting from work, social obligations, and the dramas of distant friendships. It was a time for exploration, direct interaction, and adventures; a time for facing the unknown together, and finding joy in spontaneous and unplanned moments, coupled with lessons on rebounding and reconnection after disagreements. Using public phones once a week for brief updates home was a costly but essential check-in, reflecting a simpler time now missing from contemporary vacations. Our realisation was stark: our children were on the cusp of never experiencing this kind of freedom from the mental burden of constant digital connectivity. Even with self-imposed phone restrictions, the temptation and mental strain associated with FOMO and the ever-present option to simply switch the phone back on represent a significant emotional and mental load.

teens headphones screen

Driven by a mix of nostalgia and concern for the prevailing screen culture, we decided to enforce a bold rule for our ski holiday in Italy: no headphones and limited screen time for everyone. Our aim wasn't to exactly replicate our screen-free experiences but to cultivate an environment where engagement with each other and the surrounding world could flourish, unhindered by the perpetual distractions of digital devices.

After all, what’s the point of journeying together if the experience is mediated through headphones and screens? What’s the value in exploring a new country if our eyes are fixed to smartphones? And why take time off work if we’re not truly present with one another? I preferred to limit screen time rather than confine their holiday experiences to digital interactions.

With renewed purpose, we introduced new rules: no phones during shared activities, meals (already a phone-free zone in our family), or rest times. And a firm ban on headphones for the duration of the holiday. 

We anticipated and faced dissatisfaction, resistance, negotiations, but we were confidence that this will pass and that our values on the matter are stronger than the teen’s protest. Soon enough, the signs of change were undeniable. Once deprived of their headphones, our teens became the car’s DJs, sparking discussions about music and engaging in some light-hearted karaoke- Worlds away from isolated listening to music.

The car windows offered views to the real world, inspiring daydreams and silent reflections. Disagreements, inevitable in any family dynamic, were navigated together, strengthening our bonds without the escape of screens.

family holiday teens no screen

A momentary complain during a snow hike spontaneous shifted by one of the teens into a snowball fights, dissolving tensions and eliciting laughter.

Latter the other teen suggested a pause in the hike for a shared moment of tranquility in a snow-covered forest—a spontaneous embrace of the peacefulness that underscores the joy found in simple, shared experiences, replaced scrolling and texting.

As we encouraged our daughters to keep pace on our return to the hotel, their laughter and conversations behind us were a testament to the success of our digital detox.

The holiday was not without some alone time. One teen claimed the furthest sun-bed by the pool to read quietly—a silent claim to individuality that we respected. Yet, we had indeed reclaimed our family from the grip of digital distraction.

By the end, as we journeyed back in the train from the airport to London, their inquiry about the headphones was met, with a gentle and casually mentioned of the upcoming Easter holiday's same screen time and headphones limit. The response, a resigned "Okay," perhaps, perhaps recognising the value and memories created, signalled a hopeful shift.

As we navigate the remaining years before adulthood claims them, our Italian ski adventure reaffirms the irreplaceable value of being truly present, both physical and mental. In an era dominated by screens, the ability to engage fully with the world and those in it emerges as the greatest gift of all—a lesson we hope our children carry with them into the future.


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