Unplug to Recharge: Tech Shabbat
What is Tech Shabbat?
“Tech Shabbat” is likely a term you haven’t heard yet - author Tiffany Shlain coined the term in 2010 to describe a day without using any screen-based technology: smartphones, computers, TV, or tablets. Modeling it after the traditional Jewish Shabbat, Shlain challenges us to put aside time each week to slow down and reduce the distractions around us. This is a tradition anyone can apply to their weekly routine, regardless of faith, cultural background, or prior knowledge of the Shabbat tradition. All this requires is a desire to rest, spend time with loved ones, and take time away from the technology we are constantly bombarded with!
By reading the book, I felt like I was able to understand the importance of this practice and what Tech Shabbat could do for me and my family. In Part VII, Shlain asks us to consider a few different things before beginning. I took time to read each prompt she lists and consider the following ideas:
What brings you joy?
Thinking about what screen-free activities bring me joy, I immediately think of:
cooking and baking
spending time with my husband and kids
taking outdoor adventures
putting together jigsaw puzzles
making plans with friends.
taking a nap when I can on the weekend!
What aspects of your own tradition or history could you add to the day?
Looking at what would bring joy on a tech-free day, I think about foods that can make the day more meaningful. In my family, desserts are always a hit. My sons are usually interested in baking if they can get a “first taste.” One of my sons has developed his own dinner specialty, homemade pizza!
Consider your intentions
The qualities I hope to develop are a greater awareness of my surroundings and more meaningful connections in my relationships. Tech Shabbat adds to my ability to feel gratitude toward the people and things in my life by having fewer distractions. I hope to not feel as tethered to my phone as I typically am (not usually consciously). I aim to feel more content with my thoughts and less distracted at the end of the day.
Identify the barriers
The barriers I struggle with the most are my children’s lack of appreciation for not using technology, though I understand because they are children. They seem largely unaware of the negative consequences of screen time (such as irritable mood, lack of creativity, and missing out on in-person contact with others). Additionally, my sons have limited activities they enjoy doing outside of using a screen. Thus, a “replacement” activity can sometimes be hard to decide on.
Check-in on your current screen use and time online
In my house, we have a total of 7 screens in the house (including personal and communal screens). Screens of some kind are being used as soon as family members arrive home from school/work and until we all go to bed. The only time that’s guaranteed no screens are used is during family dinner (about 30 minutes on most nights). When we are watching something together, I worry most about the screen time we engage in one-on-one with individual devices, and the ability to monitor what my children are consuming online. The longest time I remember being without technology is when we go camping for the weekend (which occurs about 1-2 weekends annually).
Focus on the bigger picture
The concept of “rest” has changed dramatically over the years for me. I grew up in a family that did not value leisure and rest time. We were always either working or doing something, such as chores or projects. It has been a big learning curve to accept that rest and leisure are a valuable use of time as well as something that supports one’s health. Now, sneaking in an afternoon nap or reading a good chunk of a book on a weekend is a huge win!
After getting to reflect on these points, I felt much better equipped to begin this practice. This reflection also allowed me to be excited about the process. First, I was looking forward to fewer barriers to connecting with my family. With us being so hyper-connected to the rest of the world from the touch of a button, we also lose our ability to be present at the moment. I was looking forward to feeling like there were no distractions in the way of our time together. I was also excited for my boys to learn to enjoy activities that didn’t involve technology. While I knew it would be a challenge to make this change, I couldn’t wait to find other activities and new traditions to enjoy with my kids.
I was also considering how to plan ahead of time. With our kids’ constantly shifting schedules, I wasn’t sure which day we should designate as our “tech-free” day. It also led to more questions - how should we let people know that we wouldn’t be reachable by phone? Would we miss any important calls? Even though it would just be for one day, there’s a comfort in knowing that we’re always connected to other people. I knew I would need to figure out a way to let myself be present while also knowing that I am not missing important messages or calls.
Introducing Tech Shabbat
In order to get things started, I talked to my husband to make sure we were on the same page. It was something that we both needed to agree on because the kids were definitely going to need some convincing! Once we went over the plan, we sat down as a family and went over everything.
1. Giving the parameters
When discussing the rules, we agreed on the following:
Tech Shabbat would last for 24 hours, once a week
No TV access, no computer time
We allowed the use of one electronic device during Tech Shabbat, our SONOS music device
We could make phone calls - however no texting, no using apps or email
2. Discussing the research
I tried to explain the research in a way they could understand. I started with the premise that too much of anything isn’t good. For instance, when you eat too much candy it gives you a stomach ache. Too much time consuming technology is not good for your brain. Through conversations, my sons were able to recall feeling irritable (with my specific prompts to recall!) after they spend too much time on a screen.
3. Expressing observations about our technology use
After talking about what I had read about, I wanted us to reflect on how this shows up in our house. When we are focused on using technology, we tend to have fewer interactions with each other; we feel disconnected. We have fewer shared experiences. We are less in touch with what is going on for each other.
4. Pitching positives
When explaining, I also wanted to talk about what we could gain from this. We would get to spend more time together doing things we enjoy, like playing games or throwing catch. Thankfully, my sons do enjoy spending time with me and my husband! I tried to spin it in a way that they get to help pick what activities we do as a family.
5. Planning ahead
Looking at the logistics, we wanted to have a plan established before starting. To make things a bit easier, we had my sons help us decide the start/stop time for Tech Shabbat every week. We also made rules (such as allowing music from our phones) that made sense for our lifestyle.
Now it was time to start! Despite our attempts to troubleshoot prior to starting, there were a few obstacles we faced quite early on in the beginning, both expected and unexpected. As I had guessed, my kids struggled quite a bit with the adjustment. There were plenty of tears, arguments, and complaining involved. The main struggle for my kids was tolerating boredom. While it has gotten better over time, my children still complain in the day or two leading up to Tech Shabbat. But, when we are hanging out, they smile and laugh more! We are much more likely to goof around, dance, and play. After their moment of frustration from boredom, they inevitably find something to do… like make creations out of cardboard boxes!
Another issue we faced involved communication issues with others. Within the first few weeks of implementing, missing phone calls caused a few situations where we weren’t able to respond to someone in time. We decided to let our friends know when we are doing Tech Shabbat and simply ask them to call us (that’s allowed) instead of text or Facetime.
As things started to settle in, I was able to see the positive changes that this time together was having on my family. First of all, my kids were doing different things, like playing with Legos, cooking, and playing outside. Instead of playing the same game as they normally did, they got to try new things they normally wouldn’t have. We even learned to play games like “Taco, Cat, Goat, Cheese, Pizza” and “Telestrations! We also had to learn to tolerate boredom, something that is a tough skill to master nowadays. With our phones just a touch away and the ability to distract us instantly, it felt a bit scary to settle into that feeling. However, once we did, it forced us to sit in those emotions rather than avoid them.
The kids were also showing creativity they hadn’t before, like taking out toys they hadn’t played with in a while and playing outside more. They also learned some new skills they may not have always practiced, like baking a dessert! Ultimately, this was a bonding experience we all enjoyed - to this day, we still chat about why we are doing this. When we have golden moments (my kids laughing a hard belly laugh, for instance) I say out loud, “This is why we do Tech Shabbat!”.
This didn’t just impact the kids, either - there was something freeing about the adults being able to do enjoyable things. Nowadays we’re wired to constantly stay connected to our jobs, commitments, and responsibilities. Without my phone or computer, I felt like I had permission to just enjoy the moment with my kids and do things that brought me joy. We also used it as an opportunity to connect with other families who were interested in joining us and could make fun plans. The more we got into the habit of our weekly routine, I found it became easier to maintain.
One benefit that I hadn’t thought of until we started was how much our sleep quality improved. I found that, instead of going straight to the screen first thing in the morning, I slept in longer. I also noticed that I felt better rested when I wasn’t going to bed distracted and looking at a screen.
My family’s overall experience with Tech Shabbat is something that I have genuinely appreciated and would like to continue doing in the future. However, as we quickly noticed, there had to be some adjustments to fit our lifestyle. Here are a few of the changes we had to make that have helped our ongoing Tech Shabbat experience:
1. Communicating more clearly with others
One of the big hiccups we had was lapses in communication. In order to prevent further issues, we modified the rules to allow phone calls from friends or family. We would let them know about Tech Shabbat in advance but allowed for time-sensitive phone calls.
2. Changing up days (and discussing in advance!)
While we wanted to consistently pick one day to unplug, we had plans and conflicting schedules that made it sometimes impossible to do it the same day each week. The flexibility to alternate between Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays made it much easier to make it something doable for the whole family.
3. Making plans with other families
Having other families join us helped make the process more enjoyable and social. We let friends know ahead of time before they come over, and they are usually curious about it AND love the idea!
4. Setting up a ritual
Instead of starting each tech-free evening without a plan in mind, we started to add some routines to structure the time. For example, after dinner, we would go for a walk before enjoying the rest of the night. Having a structured schedule allowed time to pass more quickly and allowed us to look forward to specific activities. Given how much our weekend activities greatly vary with sports and other activities, we do try to keep it relatively flexible and plan the day out the day before.
One of the most important things we did during this process was to reframe what this night was about. While it was important to convey the real reasons why we were cutting down on our use of electronics to our kids, focusing on what we are “removing” started to create a lack mentality. Instead of calling it a “tech-free” night, we started to call it “board game night” or “baking day”. By emphasizing what we were doing instead of what we weren’t doing, it allowed the kids to have more fun and enjoy the activities.
I’ve continued this weekly rest with my family and look forward to maintaining this tradition. If you decide to try Tech Shabbat, the most important thing is to make the changes that make the most sense for you and your family!
Shlain, Tiffany. 24/6 Life: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week. Gallery Books, 2019.
Shlain, Tiffany. “Everything You Need to Enjoy One Tech-Free Day a Week.” Wired, Conde Nast, 1 Oct. 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/everything-you-need-to-enjoy-one-tech-free-day-a-week/.