Family Day Unplugged: Advocates aim for tech-free holiday

Social media has people more connected than ever before. But studies warn our state of constant technology consumption can have the negative impact of making us more distant. This Family Day, one program in Alberta is trying to change that.

Social media is not going anywhere, but a program in Alberta wants us to put it on pause

People carry their phones and other devices wherever they go to keep connected and available. But groups are advocating for people to spend less time with their screens and more time with their loved ones. (CBC)

While reading this story, you probably won't be interacting with your family.

Over time, surfing the web and constantly staying connected could make you more distant with your loved ones. 

At least that's the concern behind "Family Day Unplugged," a program started by the Family and Community Support Services Association of Alberta (FCSSAA).

Canadians consume a huge amount of media each day — up to 8.2 hours, according to one recent report. Another study suggests American teens spend even more time with media, at nine hours a day.

But "Family Day Unplugged" is looking to help buck those trends this holiday Monday.

The program is encouraging communities throughout Alberta to unplug from their devices and instead spend time focused on their family. Many recreational events are being hosted throughout the province under the program's banner, including sledding, swimming, skating, board games and campfires.

Kim Williston, director of the FCSSAA branch in Beaumont, Alta., said the program was launched in response to a disconcerting trend.

"We're seeing that, in our communities, people are more disconnected," she said. "We're seeing people are busy, they're disconnected, they're not interacting with their neighbours."

Mobile devices like tablets and smartphones have increased the amount of time people spend consuming media. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

The program began in 2011 with 16 communities. It has since expanded to include more than 30 communities engaging in the event, including a friendly competition to be the most unplugged community in the province.

"People are finally starting to see that there's something to this," Williston said.

Negative effects of media consumption

A number of studies have suggested our growing consumption of media can have a negative effect on our health and relationships.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, has long warned of the need to rein in the amount of time children use technology, based on studies that show too much screen time can lead attention problems and school difficulties.

The organization recommends that children under the age of two not be exposed to any screen time and older children be limited to two hours a day. 

And a study out of the University of California, Los Angeles showed children who spent time unplugged were better at reading human emotions when compared to children who spent more time with technology.

Neurologically , when you are texting , your empathy goes down.- Catherine Steiner-Adair , clinical psychologist 

But the negative effects of too much time online apply to how parents use technology as well.

Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, said children can be hurt trying to seek attention when their parents are texting or otherwise plugged in.

"Children are feeling a lot of stress trying to get their parents to be with them, pay attention to them, answer their question," she said. "Because, neurologically, when you are texting, your empathy goes down."

The National Day of Unplugging encourages people to spend some time away from their devices and put their cell phones to a comfortable sleep. (National Day of Unplugging)

What's more, unplugging can help people feel revitalized, said Tanya Schevitz, spokesperson for Reboot's National Day of Unplugging

Held in the U.S. in early March, the event encourages people to spend time away from their devices for the day.

"It helps people renew themselves, recharge themselves," Schevitz said. "Because in today's world we're constantly connected, we're sort of in a hyper state of alert."

Schevitz also suggested this constant state of alertness has been pulling children away from their parents. "Kids aren't getting the same connection with their parents as they got before this technology existed."

Finding a practical balance

Despite encouraging people to spend more time offline, advocates know that it can be a difficult task.

The American Academy of Pediatrics revised some of their guidelines last year in response to the growth of technology aimed at children, making broad recommendations as opposed to hard caps on screen time.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of two not be exposed to any screen time and older children be limited to two hours a day. (J. Pat Carter/Associated Press)

People will always remain somewhat entrenched in their media, Williston acknowledged. 

"We live in a world that's very connected through social media and we'd be fooling ourselves to say that this [Family Day Unplugged] is going to be reducing that," she said.

Unplugging advocates also note social media has positive benefits — the ability to connect families across long distances being chief among them. 

We are not anti-technology. We recognize the value and importance of technology in today's world.- Tanya Schevitz , spokesperson for Reboot's National Day of Unplugging

"If you have a standing call with your mom who is across the country and that's the way you connect with her, my gosh, you should do that," said Schevitz. "That's not the kind of technology that's disconnecting people."

Schevitz also stated the concept behind unplugging is not about rejecting connectivity completely.

"​We are not anti-technology. We recognize the value and importance of technology in today's world," she said. "The idea really is to take a pause from the technology that consumes our lives and reconnect with the people and community who are all around us but are lost in the noise of today's relentless deluge of information."

For Schevitz, the key is for families to find balance between being connected and spending time face-to-face. She notes people should set achievable goals for themselves — something as simple as ensuring family dinners are always unplugged.

Though media will remain a crucial part of people's lives, Williston said she hopes "Family Day Unplugged" can help remind people of their most important connections.

"I just want to continue the message that, for at least one day a year — [it] really doesn't matter if you're in Alberta or where you are across the country — you make the effort to really, seriously look at how you spend time as a family unit."

CBC Forum: Should your family unplug from smartphones?

Can't see the forum? Click here.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?