Now is the Winter of our Disconnect

Its for their own good

Delightful new book by Susan Maushart describes how she unplugged her teenagers and gave them back their lives.

For six months, she took away the Internet, TV, iPods, cellphones and video games. iPhones  no longer chirped through the night like “evil crickets.” And she stopped them carrying their gadgets  into the bathroom.

Like so many teens, they couldn’t do their homework without simultaneously listening to music, updating Facebook and trading instant messages. If they were amused, instead of laughing, they actually said “LOL” aloud. Her girls had become mere “accessories of their own social-networking profile, as if real life were simply a dress rehearsal (or more accurately, a photo op) for the next status update.”

As Maushart explains in a book released in the U.S. this week called “The Winter of Our Disconnect” (Penguin, $16.95), she and her kids rediscovered small pleasures when they went off-grid together  — like board games, books, lazy Sundays, old photos, family meals and listening to music together instead of everyone plugging into their own iPods.

Her son Bill, a videogame and TV addict, filled his newfound spare time playing saxophone. “He swapped Grand Theft Auto for the Charlie Parker songbook,” Maushart wrote. Bill says The Experiment was merely a “trigger” and he would have found his way back to music eventually. Either way, he got so serious playing sax that when the gadget ban ended, he sold his game console and is now studying music in college.

Maushart’s eldest, Anni, was less wired and more bookish than the others, so her transition in and out of The Experiment was the least dramatic. Her friends thought the ban was “cool.” If she needed computers for schoolwork, she went to the library. Even now, she swears off Facebook from time to time, just for the heck of it.

The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale

Maushart’s youngest daughter, Sussy, had the hardest time going off the grid. Maushart had decided to allow use of the Internet, TV and other electronics outside the home, and Sussy immediately took that option, taking her laptop and moving in with her dad — Maushart’s ex-husband — for six weeks. Even after she returned to Maushart’s home, she spent hours on a landline phone as a substitute for texts and Facebook.

But the electronic deprivation had an impact anyway: Sussy’s grades improved substantially. Maushart wrote that her kids “awoke slowly from the state of cognitus interruptus that had characterized many of their waking hours to become more focused logical thinkers.”

Maushart decided to unplug the family because the kids — ages 14, 15 and 18 when she started The Experiment — didn’t just “use media,” as she put it. They “inhabited” media. “They don’t remember a time before e-mail, or instant messaging, or Google,” she wrote.

Maushart admits to being as addicted as the kids. A native New Yorker, she was living in Perth, Australia, near her ex-husband, while medicating her homesickness with podcasts from National Public Radio and The New York Times online. Her biggest challenge during The Experiment was “relinquishing the ostrichlike delusion that burying my head in information and entertainment from home was just as good as actually being there.”

Maushart began The Experiment with a drastic measure: She turned off the electricity completely for a few weeks — candles instead of electric lights, no hot showers, food stored in a cooler of ice. When blackout boot camp ended, Maushart hoped the “electricity is awesome!” reaction would soften the kids’ transition to life without Google and cell phones.

It was a strategy that would have made Maushart’s muse, Henry David Thoreau, proud. She is a lifelong devotee of Thoreau’s classic book “Walden,” which chronicled Thoreau’s sojourn in solitude and self-sufficiency in a small cabin on a pond in the mid-1800s. “Simplify, simplify!” Thoreau admonished himself and his readers, a sentiment Maushart echoes throughout the book.

As a result of The Experiment, Maushart made a major change in her own life. In December, she moved from Australia with Sussy to Mattituck, on Long Island. Of course, the move merely perpetuated Maushart’s need to live in two places at once: She kept her job as a columnist for an Australian newspaper and is “living on Skype” because her older children stayed Down Under to attend university. Ironically, the Internet eased the transition to America for Sussy, who used Facebook to befriend kids in her new high school before arriving.

Another change for Maushart: She’s no longer reluctant to impose blackouts on Sussy’s screentime. “Instead of angsting, ‘Don’t you think you’re spending too much time on the computer? Don’t you think you should do something else like reading?’ I now just take the computer away when I think she’s had enough,” Maushart said in a phone interview. “And now that she’s been on the other side and remembers what it’s like, it’s less of an issue.”

5 Responses

  1. leedle, sounds like this is exactly what you need… if you are so dependent on technology that you feel your life isn’t worth living without it, then there is a major problem there.
    What this mom did was to expand her kid’s minds and lives by temporary removing the electronic distractions and making them focus on reality, the REAL reality of life, analog life, not a digital life.


  2. Great post . And congrats to the Author of this Book
    My opinion on this is . We can use computer , but use little discipline on what you do and how long.I find myself just surfing and forking out from one topic to another , where time is no more… if I do not really decide what I have to do , before I even turn on my PC. So I think to everything there must be balance .Also Computer and all this electro gadgets give us really nothing that is alive. It is all dead Info. But If like the Boy start playing saxophone and makes music , this is what wee humans need. Any physical and creative activity gives us energy. Excessive PC and gadget usage just drains our energy. I do not know if all this High tech is for our best at the time we have it. Go learn to plant a tree. Or have you almost forgotten how to do this more actuall important life survival task?
    Thank you

  3. How brave and insightful of this mother…how wonderful for her children…as a grandmother I’m just now getting into the electronic age of online communication and cellphones…but my granddaughter lives on her phone and I can see the physical effects as well as the mental ones on her…she doesn’t want to communicate aka talking…if I have anything to say to her I have to text…I find this sad…but figured it’s the latest thing..good for Maushart…

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