Beyond Digital Detox: How to Make a Home for Humans
Scaffolds, Altars, and Screen-Free Living Spaces
Until our move three years ago, our three children (then aged 8 to 14) shared the same, small 10’ by 13’ bedroom. For 15 years, we had lived in a 1400 sq. foot townhome together with my mother-in-law, and she had the master bedroom. It certainly forced us to use our space deliberately, creatively, and with buckets of compromise.1 In a world where every individual is assumed to have the right to a private room, puzzling three children into a tiny space with bunk and loft beds, bookshelves, and clothes cubbies was not only an anomaly, but struck some friends and family as simply undoable. While there were plenty of challenging moments, especially during arguments (“Well, I am going to my room!” followed by “Oh yeah? Me too!”), the constraints of the environment produced a strong and lasting bond between the siblings. The smallness of the space forced them to learn tolerance, compromise, and self-denial, accompanied by a depth of camaraderie that fewer and fewer siblings experience. Their environment forged their interactions and the depth of their connection.
Within the home, environment matters not only in child rearing, it is also fundamental in shaping our interactions with tech. Most often attempts at curtailing digital device use focus on the self: How to refrain from checking behavior, how to focus our attention better, or how to reshape our minds to be present in the moment. Yet in order to produce lasting effects we need to turn things inside out, away from the self, and toward reshaping our surrounding environment. And currently nothing dominates our personal space as ubiquitously as screens.
Polling of 2,000 adults in the U.S. found more than 6,259 hours a year are spent tethered to gadgets such as phones, laptops and televisions. This translates into 44 years of life spent staring at a screen. The average U.S. household boasted an average of 11 connected devices in 2019, some statistics suggesting that this number went up to 22 devices per household post-pandemic. It seems patently unrealistic to expect that willpower alone will save us from compulsively turning our attention to screens. Algorithms are designed to keep us hooked. We can try our best, we sometimes succeed for a while, but we are ultimately powerless to change our digital habits unless we change our surroundings.
A fascinating recent article pointed out by— What If All Our Residence Halls Were Tech Free? — discusses the idea of taking decisive action in shaping our environment by reducing the presence of personal tech in Christian College settings. The author suggests that Amish are not “radical” because they chose to shun particular technologies, but rather “because they actually make decisions, rather than allowing the decision to be made for them by something called ‘progress.’”
So what type of decisions can help us to shape our environment to allow us to grow in our relationships, strengthen our family bonds, and direct our attention not toward screens, but each other?