[after a post from last week, several people asked if I would re-post my piece on our screen free Sundays. So here it is, from early last year!]
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By growing daily in our awareness of the vital importance of encountering others, we will employ technology wisely, rather than letting ourselves be dominated by it. Here too, parents are the primary educators, but they cannot be left to their own devices. The Christian community is called to help them in teaching children how to live in a media environment in a way consonant with the dignity of the human person and service of the common good. The great challenge facing us today is to learn once again how to talk to one another, not simply how to generate and consume information. The latter is a tendency which our important and influential modern communications media can encourage. – Pope Francis
My wife came up with the idea of having a “screen free Sunday” back in 2007 when the use of the Internet was ramping up in our home, and we began to notice how it began to affect our family interactions, our dedication to spending time outdoors, or our ability to just “hang out” without having to be productive, entertained, working, busy or distracted from the slow, uncontrollable pace of real life and real relationships. And this was before the phone had become a portal into the infinite black hole of cyberspace.
This is part of a broader techno-asceticism in our home that includes other prescriptive rules like, Thou shalt spend planned & limited time on screens or Thou shalt light a candle and not curse the darkness online; and other proscriptive rules like, Thou shalt not use phones at a meal ever or Thou shalt not bring a screen to bed with you. But Screen-free Sunday always remains the central and sacred cow of the Nealfam’s Rule of Life, the perpetual memorial of technology’s servant-status to daily life.
The concept is simple. On Sunday, TV is off, WiFi goes dark, laptops and phones go away into the Sabbath Box unless there is a very specific and demonstrated need to communicate. The only exceptions to being screen-free are watching sports events or a movie as a family. Obviously, the complexity of life and schedules demand that exceptions have to be made now and again, but the key is to keep them exceptions and reiterate the rule afresh every weekend.
The concept is simple, but the practice is difficult, takes serious planning, requires consistency and enforcement. Let me tell you, this is not for the faint of heart. You must have a firm resolve, like the kind of resolve you make to breathe and eat to stay alive. It will be one of the hardest things to sustain for typical American families and (especially younger) individuals. It’s very easy to just give in and let the frog die in the boiling water. Very.
As our children have become adults we continue to strongly encourage them to continue this tradition. The jury is out. But if they choose to do otherwise, we require that any screens they light up MUST not ‘invade’ our common areas in the home.
This has been the single most important domestic discipline, after the family meal and family prayer, that we have instituted and sustained in our family. Why? Well, it’s obvious that we live in a culture of screen obsession and addiction, and we are determined to cultivate a subculture that protects our family life from the corrosive tendencies in digital culture and strengthens our children to engage digital culture from a posture of virtue and self-mastery. That’s the hope.
Let me list just a few of the benefits we have reaped:
- We are ‘forced’ to cultivate family time every Sunday; to do family activities; to go outdoors; to talk about life, family history, upcoming plans; to sing, draw, read, do hobbies, ad infinitum. Creativity explodes. Screen-free Sunday is actually a Family-full Sunday, as we try to use our freedom to be more human. Sundays have tons more laughter in them. To that points, if this practice is not combined with rich, creative activities it will become a negation and punishment only.
- Our children have to learn time management, how to budget weekend time to get computer-based homework, etc. done before Sunday. And my wife and I have to do the same, especially with work activities.
- On Sundays you can get a ‘feel’ of the level of addiction you might have developed over the week, appreciating acutely the importance of discerning your attachments regularly and addressing them decisively with fresh solutions. How hard is it for you to detach from screens or interact with the people in front of you? To enjoy the outdoors? You can talk about screen hygiene openly and naturally as a family on these Sundays. For those who are not convinced of the importance of our practice or the gravity of the problem, I challenge them to try it out just one Sunday and watch what happens.
- We get a rest from incessant communication with too many people all the time, and from the wearying press of demand for an instant response to everything.
- Becoming aware just how anti-social social media can make you in relation to those in your own home.
- Family prayer on Sunday night is always the richest of the week. Hands down.
- These Sundays become a tangible/radical witness to your protest against the totalizing momentum of screens to define our lives.
Technology in many ways has become the Egypt of our culture, thrusting us unwittingly into a new slavery. It need not be that way as there is so much good on the Digital Continent! But like anything, it requires redemption — and since for Jews and Christians the divine “excuse” to exit Egypt and head to the Land of Freedom is the Sabbath (Exodus 5:1), Patti and I thought Sunday was a good symbolic choice for our weekly redemptive exodus.
I certainly fail in this practice frequently enough to get discouraged at times. Mostly work-related failures. But we will never abandon the idea because of failures, any more than one abandons the pursuit of virtue simply because of a failure to always practice it.
Thanks to my wife’s creativity and steely will, prayer and our children’s patient endurance, we will persevere.
This revolutionary practice can be for families and for individuals. For all who wish to humanize technology and not technologize humanity, and to remind the world that the Sabbath is the most humanizing gift God has given us.