In a 20-minute span on our last trip our 12-year-old fellow travelers went from an in-depth discussion of privilege and socioeconomic imbalance to dismissive eye rolling when asked to put their phones away. Tweens are some of the most amazing and frustrating creatures on the planet. Being your best self with them while traveling – and probably all the time – takes flexibility, clarity of purpose, and a lot of deep breathing. This is the first in a series of posts on successful travel with tweens. Success to me means minimizing the conflict and maximizing the fantastic. I’m going to start with one of the most painful lessons we’ve learned: technology. In this post we’ll review some of the research, recommend an approach, and give three potential ways to improve your relationship with technology-using tweens while traveling.
Our Tween Travel Technology Failure
The biggest mistake we made on our last trip was around technology. It was the first trip we took that Beija both had a phone and there was pretty regular internet service. We also took a second tween, doubling the fun. We completely failed to set clear boundaries. Here’s what happened:
In the airport I said, “Okay, girls, we are not going to be on our phones all the time on this trip.” The response, “yep, ok.” (Some of you experienced parents might already see danger ahead.)
What is wrong with what I said? Well, “all the time” meant something very different to me than it did to them. The limit was completely meaningless. The result was a constant battle of asking them to put their devices away and engage with the world around them. It is exhausting for us and for them.
Two Painful Technology Stories (of many)
- We’re at a farm that has dogs, goats, a bull, and chickens. The girls were working on a really cool weaving project that they’d designed themselves. Samuel and Leonor were teaching them about the loom. It was a gorgeous, not-too-hot afternoon. We’d set a cleaner boundary that day: “No devices until after dinner.” The girls were trading off time on the loom. I went into our room and there was a kid on her device. WTH?!
- We’re at a gloriously beautiful beach with great swimming. There are people to watch, iguanas to monitor, tropical drinks to be devoured, puppies to be followed around, and rocks to be climbed. The girls had their own room and hadn’t emerged by 9am. I check my parental control app and notice that the kid had spent three (!) hours on Instagram. First, my app was clearly not doing its job. Second, I could think of a hundred more wonderful things to do than Instagram.
I do want to note that I think they both really tried not to “overuse” their devices. It was just too hard for them to self-regulate. The research I describe next gives us some clues as to why.
What does the research say?
The truth is, technology is often overused by tweens and is downright and addictive. A representative survey by Common Sense Media found that American tweens spend almost six hours per day on the internet – not including school and homework use.
There is a solid body of research that shows similarities between the brains of internet addicts and those of substance abusers and pathological gamblers. This doesn’t mean that everyone is addicted, it just means that technology can be addictive – there are elements of technology that light up the brain’s pleasure centers in a way that makes it hard for people (adults and kids alike) to manage their use of devices in a totally objective way. In fact, technology addiction is being considered for the next update of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the book clinicians use to make psychiatric diagnoses). That’s a nice way to pathologize adolescence.
Travel without screens may improve Tweens’ EQ
An illuminating study of a set of 100 sixth graders suggests that eliminating access to screens and increasing social contact improved their ability to read nonverbal emotional cues. Half of the group was a control and the other half went to a device-free nature camp for five days. The kids exposed to the camp improved on evaluation of their understanding of nonverbal emotional cues more than the control group.
The research intervention, a nature camp, is very similar to many travel experiences. In the best kind of travel there are frequent opportunities for face to face communication with your travel partners and locals and…you have the option to apply your own research intervention!
So, What Do We Do About Tween Travel Technology?
Even if you have set and practiced self-regulation at home, the unique environment of travel could create new challenges. So we have one overarching recommendation with three options.
Recommendation in two parts:
- Decide ahead of time (before you get to the airport) which technology option you’ll choose from the three below. Ideally, you’ll do this with input from your tween. They need to have a sense of participation and control or you lose them fast. Communicate the decision clearly and with detail. Cover as many “what ifs” with them as you can so you’re not dealing with them in the moment.
- Do not waver. Tweens are expert wheedlers/negotiators/lawyers. They can sense opportunity from a mile away and will pester you for the remainder of your trip. This is a somewhat aggravating trait, but I try to remember that this persistence will help them to be successful adults.
As our trip was wrapping up, we (adults and tweens) went through a lessons-learned exercise and came up with possible alternatives to our poor boundary-setting for next time:
Option 1: Zero Devices
No one ever died from a digital detox. Our tweens might act like it will kill them, but I couldn’t find any actual instances of death in the literature. This option would include leaving all tween devices at home. This would also reduce the likelihood of loss, damage, or theft. Most of which we’ve experienced on trips at some point or another.
I’ve heard the main argument already, “But my phone is my camera!” See Option 3 if this is a concern you’d like accommodate. If not, an old-fashioned standalone camera is pretty cool.
Option 2: Device Lockup
If you want to have your tween’s full attention during the day but want to allow your tween to connect with friends, watch a few funny cat videos, and do online research about the activities that they’d like to engage in the next day, this is a good option. You can lock up the devices except for an hour (or whatever length of time you decide ahead of time) each day. Most lodgings have a safe you could use, or you could keep the devices on you if you prefer. This eliminates temptation but allows some use.
You can also combine this with Option 3.
Option 3: Locked Down Devices
We have found ways with Apple devices to lock down access to everything but the camera. For iPhone, you can go into your child’s phone in the Settings > General > Restrictions, set a passcode, and disable all apps except the camera. Here’s an article that walks through iPhone “restrictions” in much more detail.
After setting a password, turn off all the tools except the camera.
When we had an Android we used a parental controls app called DinnerTime+. You can set time limits and shutdown times. If you are using an Android device in conjunction with DinnerTime+ just move all the apps out of the “Allowed” into the “Locked” category. There are many other apps to implement parental controls, just make sure they have this feature.
Intentionally managing tween technology before and during your trip will decrease friction and maximize engagement. We asked Beija to review this post and tell us what she thought. She thought the solutions we identified were reasonable and made sense. We’ll see if she still feels that way on our next trip.
As for the question about what you do with your own technology? Well, that’s up to you.
Speaking of next trip, we’ve got one planned! We’re going to run a device-free summer camp to Oaxaca in August 2018. Check it out!