Back to the 1990s

Technology is a wonderful thing. I have always been a bit of a computer geek in the past. Spending most lunchtimes in the IT suite at school, taking pride in teaching my parents how to operate our computer at home, my evenings chatting to friends on ICQ and MSN messenger and once I began teaching, being somewhat of a pioneer in introducing new technologies to my school. I was one of the few who fell in love with Windows Vista when it first came out (although windows 3.1 will always be my first love) and at one point I even got my friends to show me how to take a computer apart and meddle with the components.

Once they were released, a smart phone was a ‘must’ for me. When the pandemic first hit, I suggested to a group of friends I regularly meet with, that we use video conferencing. Even now, I find my Alexa smart system exciting. However, it feels like the more people are on board with technology the less it interests me. Maybe it’s because when I look around me at the world and everyone always has their phone in their hand it makes me feel a bit sad. Maybe it’s because I have seen people I care about get destroyed by social media. Or maybe it is just because people have stopped interacting properly because online is now an option. The truth is, it has been an option for a while but facetime and zoom chats are indisputably not the same as meeting face to face. My children are very tactile and are either uninterested with talking to a screen, they run around and pull silly faces due to its novelty value, they minimise the conversation and get distracted by someone else available on the interface or simply think they can switch the screen off mid conversation as they view people as similar to characters to their favourite TV show.

So we made a decision: we would remove the smart technology. This was partly to try and deal with the inappropriate ways our children react to everything on a screen but primarily for our own mental health – tying in rather nicely with ‘Mental health day’. Our mobile phones were switched off at midnight on Friday. Instead of being woken by a phone vibrating we were greeted by two sons wanting breakfast. Later in the day we played in the garden, walked to Grandma’s house to collect apple crumble, got creative with playdough, played trains and put new batteries in our toy till so we could play shops. A few times my husband felt a minor frustration about not being able to order a car part or check a fact but by the first evening it was clear that no phone was improving the quality of our family life. If it isn’t visible them the children don’t ask you to use it and consequently you don’t have to say ‘no’ to them unescessarily.

Our challenge was to limit technology for an entire weekend. We decided that some technology was necessary, we didn’t fancy salting food to keep it fresh without our fridge or rubbing stick together to make the fire needed to cook. So we decided to restrict ourselves to items available in the 1990s only. Obviously there needed to be some loop holes. We do have a 1991 Polo but we cannot fit our family of five in it legally as youngest son and middle son still require a car seat. Instead we opted to use our larger car but turn off extra features such as autowipers and tune in the DAB radio to fm stations only. We allowed ourselves TV but channels 1-5 only. This in itself caused some debate as I was able to get channel 5 on the TV my house that decade whereas it wasn’t available where husband lived. In the morning the boys often watch TV before breakfast, we were delighted to find that 3 out of 5 channels have children’s programmes on them in the mornings. They opted to watch the classic cartoon ‘Tom and Jerry’ on Citv. We also decided that where an item had been invented e.g. the hoover, we were allowed to use our modern equivalent. 

I was aware that I have an unhealthy addiction to my phone. In fact many people my age probably use their phone more often than they need to. However, when you witness people generations above you get their phone out in the middle of a conversation to look up the concept you are talking about, you realise there is a problem. My son’s school has signs up that read ‘Greet your child with a smile, not a mobile phone.’ I’m in full agreement on that one. I thought about the following list of tasks that I do on my mobile phone: 

  • Transferring money to pay for their childcare. 
  • Playing a game. 
  • Googling fun places to take the children in the holidays. 
  • Ordering Christmas/birthday presents for them. 
  • Texting my friends 
  • Finding out more information about the film I watched last night 
  • Checking the time of appointments 
  • Reading and responding to work emails 
  • Uploading the reading my child has done for their teacher. 
  • Mapping the route to the hospital. 
  • Checking the news headlines for the day 
  • Checking the time (how long until dinner is ready) 
  • Watching a comedy clip 
  • Finding out what time husband will be home for dinner. 

I could continue with the list forever because there is very little you cannot do on a phone nowadays. In the days before mobiles, it was easy to identify which of these were more important or that you would have happily done in front of your children and which you would wait to do in your own time. The problem is that to a child, each of these tasks are viewed the same. 

  • Mummy is on her phone and not looking at me. 
  • Daddy is on his phone and not looking at me. 
  • Mummy is on her phone and not looking at me. 
  • Daddy is on his phone and not looking at me. 
  • Mummy is on her phone and not looking at me.  
  • Daddy is on his phone and not looking at me. 

At the weekend I take my boys swimming. There is a half an hour wait between sessions. In time gone by we have looked through and talked about pictures (memories) – on my phone, had a go at completing homework tasks – on an app on my phone or most commonly they elect to play on their ‘pup pad’ – a hand held device. All these may be fun and they may pass the time but ultimately they involve staring at a screen. I looked around at others in the waiting area. They also had their phones and other devices out. Out of ten tables, there were people talking to each other face to face on only one! So this weekend we took a few packs of cards out with us. I played snap with middle son and I taught eldest the care game patience (which he loved). It felt good. 

Overall I have had a great weekend and I’ve been able to relax far more than usual. We’ve got more done than we ever thought possible (including sorting out items from the loft and reorganising the playroom) amongst calm children. We’ve been for a family swimming session, play area outing, turned homework into a game, had more relaxing family meal times and played a lot of lego. I just can’t believe that is a coincidence. In addition, middle and eldest child have been introduced to some of my old 8+ board games from my childhood – we played ‘Game of life’ and they loved earning money!  I could concentrate on the moment and the family I have around me, instead taking on the thoughts and worries of my friends (whatsapp and text), acquaintances (instagram), colleagues (email), community (facebook groups), strangers (twitter), the nation (BBC news), and the world (google).  

The best part about all this: at the end of the evening when you are chatting to your husband and the focus is solely on the talking instead of checking tomorrow’s calendar. We both agreed that not only were we successful in our challenge but that it had been a very positive experience for the whole family. Where it wouldn’t be practical to do this permanently, as I’m likely to miss something and get into trouble, it is definitely something we intend to repeat. We are happy for our boys to use apps and screens (after all technology is the future) but we also want them to appreciate how enjoyable life can be without them.

Choose your path wisely

Actually getting out of the front door for our weekend walk was somewhat of a challenge. Eldest son decided to launch into a full scale meltdown during that critical time slot – between food and youngest son requiring his nap. Two sock changes (obviously) and many tears later we made it out.

Baby was in his little life backpack carrier and mostly we were wearing boots, so we thought we’d be safe to explore some of the off-road footpaths. We discovered new exciting amounts of mud: the type that the playground game ‘Stuck in the mud’ is named after. Middle son found his feet sinking into the mud and accidentally pulling his whole leg out of his boot with each forward step, I made a poor choice of footwear and kept slipping sideways, eldest son didn’t pick the wisest spot to put his hand and got his gloves all muddy. We tried to find a safe route through this simple footpath, but things got more complicated. It felt a bit like we were on ‘Total wipeout’ except there was no comically oversized boxing glove to knock us off course. As we navigated around the more treacherous sections, clinging to nearby vegetation or fence posts; husband bravely waded though the central part of the course and attempted to rescue us from assorted predicaments.

Daddy trying to get middle son through a particularly tricky section and losing youngest son’s hat to the mud in the process.

By the time we returned the tantrum might have been forgotten but we’d once again accumulated enough muddy garments to fill the washing machine twice over. I still think Total Wipeout looks like fun but maybe without the kids, TV cameras and running commentary.

The return