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The 4 Stages of Unplugging a Child's Brain

A 30-day road trip and the difficulty and power of screen withdrawal

Garth Sundem
Source: Garth Sundem

I'm sitting in the passenger seat of an Escape Campervan, rolling down the road somewhere south of Ashland, Oregon and north of Shasta, California. It's been a long trip from Boulder, Colorado, up through Bozeman, Montana, Lake Louise and then Squamish, Canada, and down through the wet Northwest. Along the way, we have unplugged: No role-playing game videos for my 10-year-old, no Evolution game apps for my 8-year-old, no rabbit holes of heartwarming Facebook videos for my wife, and no compulsively checking my Amazon rank or following Twitter hashtags for me. Thirty days of nearly screen-free existence. (Typing this post is one of very few exceptions.)

I've seen a lot of the research on unplugging. And also a lot of research on connecting with nature, reading for enjoyment, and time spent with family – all features of our summer road trip. But these studies always seem so piecemeal; small studies that show varying effects of screen time restriction on sleep or attention or health, or large survey-based studies that correlate hours of screen time with these same things. It's hard to know what these things mean in real life. Do these specific little findings really mean anything to kids and families in the real world?

There's another kind of research called the 'case study' and I guess that's what we've done accidentally this summer. What happens when you take plugged-in kids and unplug them? Here's what we've found.

The first thing our kids did was go desperately looking for whatever escapism was still allowed. In our case, this meant burning through books. Instead of trapping their eyes in whatever screens were available – phone, iPad, laptop or, in times of desperate need, the television – they dove into fantasy books, reading in the Escape van's backseat and even bringing books into restaurants. It was as if this less intense version of escapism required more time to do its job – it took an hour of reading to replace 15 minutes of screen time.

In the second week of our trip, the kids turned to each other for entertainment. It often wasn’t pretty. My little readers became squirrels, unable to keep their hands off each other, fighting and bickering and poking and punching. Was this an expression of the violence they were missing on screens? Is this what happens to kids who spend too much time together without distraction? In restaurants, instead of being those quiet kids reading books, they bumped each other in lines and fought over whose turn it was to use the red crayon to do the puzzles on their kids' menus.

The third week was about boredom. They stared out the van windows and preferred to stay in their seats when we got gas. It was as if their neurons that had so valiantly tried to supply themselves with the level of input they were used to, had finally given up. Everything slowed down. It seemed like they needed to be physically moved to a campground's picnic table for breakfast and then have daytime shoes placed directly next to their feet in order to get the day started.

Finally, now in our fourth week on the road, they've started to reboot. Yesterday morning, my rail-thin 10-year-old ate a bowl of cereal, a bowl of oatmeal, and a bean-and-cheese burrito for breakfast. My 50-pound 8-year-old ate two In-n-Out cheeseburgers for lunch. We haven't changed the energy requirements of our days? Why did their bodies suddenly need these extra calories? Maybe it's because our brain uses about 20 percent of our energy at resting metabolic rate. Was this intake a marker of the kids' brains being forced to work for entertainment and engagement in a way they never had to before?

Obviously, I don't know. What I do know is that last night at the Emigrant Lake campground, instead of watching cooking challenge game shows, my kids found a toad hopping in the dark and made up constellations to represent our Labradors. They went to sleep easily and slept well. And they seem to be looking out into the world not only with new eyes but with new brains – neurons scrubbed free of the easy sizzle of technology in favor of a more engaged and effortful appreciation of the world.