How To Get Kids + Adults Off Their Phones

Break out the craft supplies, and leave your screens alone.

December 9, 2015
device-free zone
PHOTOGRAPH BY PHILIPP WEITZ

When my then 10-year-old daughter, Dori, had a sleepover birthday party, I didn’t anticipate so many kids bringing their phones. And using them. After movie time in the basement, the screens came out for videos, games, and texting. Not only did my daughter feel left out at her own party but the girls on devices weren’t interacting much with each other. I vowed that the next sleepover would be device-free. 

I’m not the only one troubled by how digital devices disrupt our ability to spend time together. A Pew Research Center study found that 82 percent of adults surveyed said that when people use their phones during group situations, it’s harmful to conversations and to the social atmosphere. It also turns out that my device-free party concept is part of a national trend—and not just for kids. 

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Adults can sign up for Camp Grounded, device-free, summer-camp-style retreats with deliberately retro activities like arts and crafts, talent shows, dances, and swimming. Analog events are also in full swing on the National Day of Unplugging (the next one takes place March 4 and 5), when groups around the country host bonfires, yoga sessions, outdoor games, and themed evening get-togethers centered on music, crafts and board games.

“We as a society reached a tipping point where you’re always accessible, and there’s an expectation that you’d respond to every beeping of your phone or tablet. It’s really overwhelming,” says Tanya Schevitz, the national communications manager for Reboot, which runs the National Day of Unplugging. If, like me, you don’t want to wait for March to unplug, Schevitz offers a few pointers for how to throw a digital detox party at any time of year.

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Get Buy-In Ahead Of Time
It’s not fair to invite someone to a party and then demand that they hand over their phone without warning. If you’re inviting a small group, have a conversation with each person ahead of time and make sure they’re on board. Schevitz suggests emphasizing the universality of the problem. “Say to you friends, ‘When we’re all together, I notice that we’re distracted from each other on our phones,’” says Schevitz. By making it a collective issue and not pointing fingers, your friends may feel more comfortable with the concept. 

 

Take Phones Away—Gently
When guests arrive, provide a place for them to check their phones (and their watches, if they get messages and internet there too). It can be an over-the-door shoe holder with ID numbers if the party is large or just a basket. “It’s like a coat check,” says Schevitz, who adds that it’s not enough for people to turn their phones off and leave them in their pockets. The act of handing them over is a marker that they’ve left that digital space.

cell phone holders
PHOTOGRAPH BY PHILIPP WEITZ

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Have A Plan
During the party, your guests may realize what a crutch their phone is. “Your phone is your escape, your protection because it could be uncomfortable to make conversation with someone you don’t know,” said Schevitz. A little planning helps guests get over the hump of screen-free of social awkwardness. Schevitz starts dinner parties off with a question. “I start by asking how many people have felt ignored by someone on a phone. It gets us all together. We’ve all done it.” For larger parties, she likes to riff on the unplugged theme by having guests make cell phone “sleeping bags” out of fabric and fabric glue for guests to bring home. 

 

Designate A Number For Emergencies
Back in the day, when parents were going out, babysitters were given the host’s phone number and address, only to be contacted in case of emergency. Ahead of time, designate a number that guests’ sitters can call if need be.

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