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Digital Detox Family Vacations Are on the Rise. Here’s Exactly What They’re Like

One glorious, uplifting, totally positive long weekend as a screen-free family.

The digital detox — forced time away from iPads, smartphones, and other screens — is on the rise for worried individuals, couples, and families. It’s no wonder. More researchers are equating our screens to drugs that are both addictive and impairing. But do detoxes actually work?

A new study from the University of East Anglia, University of Greenwich, and Auckland University of Technology investigated how engaging in digital-free tourism impacted travelers’ experiences. The study polled participants as they travel without phones, laptops, tablets, the internet, social media, or navigation tools, and followed them through the emotional journey of life without screens.

Among the findings, researchers noted that participants traveling as a couple, or in a group, tended to be more confident to disconnect than solo travelers. They also found that withdrawal symptoms tended to be stronger for travelers who participated in digital-free tourism with many social and professional commitments. Unsurprisingly, some participants tried, but could not disconnect during their travels either because they did not feel secure and thought they would get lost, or because they had private commitments that did not allow them to be unavailable.

While the study did not specifically look at families taking on a digital detox, we can only imagine how such a vacation would unfold: 

Saturday

12 p.m.

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We’ve been four hours without phones or tablets, laptops, or, for some freaking reason, Kindles (seriously, who counts a Kindle as a screen?), and I’ll be honest: Everything feels different. My thoughts are so much more clear, our moods are high (my wife just called me “honey” without a trace of sarcasm), and even the food tastes better (Fritos!). Other than the phantom buzzing I keep feeling on my upper thigh (couldn’t be…), I feel physically better than I have in a very long time. We’re soon to arrive at our cabin, home away from home, in the midst of the great New Jersey Pine Barrens — odiferous (and flammable!) forest floors for as far as the eye can see. And, so we’ve been told, not a cell signal to receive.

5 p.m. 

We all arrived invigorated (“bored” said the boys; that’s a tween sense of humor for you!) and took that energy on a brisk hike. We got lost pretty much immediately. The maps we printed at home were a) not to scale and b) highway maps. We also forgot about the bugs. Did you know there were three kinds of flies in the Pine Barrens? Green, black, and gargantuan. Haha! Good one, right? I’ll be using that one for weeks to come. Feel free to do the same. Anyway, we’ll be staying indoors a bit more than we thought. No bother. Nothing a glass of wine and steak dinner can’t cure, right? Also, plenty of forest to see out of our windows. The view really is quite lovely. Who needs screens when the vast beauty of nature is outside our window?

10:30 p.m. 

A few glasses of wine, a steak dinner, and a few tubes of itch cream did us all wonders (the kids were a tiny bit grouchy; they didn’t get wine). Now, for a riveting game of Scrabble with the family. Except, there is no way in hell “Kwyjibo” is a word. The kids know there’s no internet and they smell weakness. We’ll look it up tomorrow… I mean, Monday. Now, I’m off to bed to stare at the ceiling and remember my favorite Friends reruns. 

Sunday 

11 a.m. 

I guess we are more reliant on Alexa (and our two backup phone alarms) to wake us up than we realized. I want to say I feel refreshed, but I think “unmoored” is closer to it. How many tweets from the president have I missed by this point? Do you think that Russian nuclear explosion that happened on Friday was the beginning of the next Cold War? How long would it take for nuclear fallout to reach this nether region of Jersey? I wonder if A$AP Rocky was found guilty and what a Swedish jail is like. Reminder to self: Image search Swedish jails when I get back. I bet they’re like little IKEA showrooms.

11:30 a.m.

You know that feeling you had when the kids were, oh, 2-and-a-half, in the midst of a tantrum and you thought to yourself, “They’re unbearable. I just need to get through this” (and then you gave them the iPad to just shut them up already). What do you do with a 10- and 13-year-old who, thanks to the lack of smartphone, are tantruming in their own way? The 10-year-old is trying out the phrase “I’m borrreed” like a yogi who is no longer interested in their own mantras, but subjects you to them anyway. The other — and this is far, far worse — just keeps eating milk-drenched cereal, slowly and sloppily, making long, unblinking eye contact with anyone who dares enter the kitchen, which happens to be connected and within eye contact of the rest of the house. Where’s the DEET? Daddy needs a long hike. 

2 p.m. 

I’m back, no one is home, and the car is gone. My hand reaches instinctively, over and over, for the phone that is decidedly not appearing in my pocket. I can admit it now, I have felt a constant phantom buzzing on my leg where my phone used to be since 8:01 a.m. Saturday. It’s now at full tilt. I can only imagine where they are — at some internet café browsing the World Wide Web. No, this is 2019. Those don’t exist anymore. They’re probably sitting in a movie theater, letting the Dolby Surround Sound wash over them as the Avengers do their little dance on the screen. Why. Couldn’t. They. Have. Waited.

3 p.m. 

Haha. Ice cream! That gas station about 10 miles out had an ice cream counter, remember? Boy would that have been awkward if I tried to hitchhike to the nearest theater 60 miles away to “join them” on their great escape. Instead, I kicked back and ran with the theme of the weekend: Digital detox. Yup, I shaved that 12-year-old beard right off my face. Would I even have one if it weren’t for Instagram? Your daily dose of beard envy. I’m better than that now. I’m a free man. 

9 p.m. 

The wife and kids have really got into that Scrabble, fools that they are. They wouldn’t even join me on the roof for dinner! Did you ever think about how the walls and the ceiling are, like, the screens that hold us in, confining our very souls? I realize this now, sitting on these steep shingles as the blood from a cold steak dribbles down my chin, the stars twinkle, flies buzz beside me (no, with me) and I feel a funny urge to howl, laugh, and sob at the same time.

Monday 

12 a.m. 

I cried a lot tonight. For my lost beard. For the lost presidential tweets I’ll have to read in some second-rate news roundup tomorrow night. For the off-the-charts cheating I saw walking past the Scrabble board on my way to the bedroom, which, it turns out, is empty. I deserve this. Before I plop down on the bed and give in, though, I notice a soft and beautiful glow coming from the closet. As if in a dream, I walk to the door and open it slowly. My wife raises her head, peaceful-like, with that numb gaze I know so well. She motions to the ground. As I sit, it dawns on me: The cabin has wifi. 

The. Cabin. Has. Wifi. 

The wife and I binge on the triumphant last season of Orange Is the New Black until dawn. There, huddled in the warm embrace of a woman’s maximum security prison, I think to myself, there’s no place like home.