Every summer for two weeks we rent a cabin in the woods of Vermont while our nine-year-old daughter goes to a Quaker-run farm and wilderness day camp nearby. Our getaway seats us in the very lap of nature. Birds of all kinds sing outside our windows; giant variegated moths drowse on the screens; the staccato tree work of woodpeckers forms a background percussion. Some unidentifiable creature howls in the woods at 2 a.m. That’s enough to make me rethink sleeping outside in my tent.

But what truly scares some potential renters of the cabin, its owner tells me, is not the presence of wild animals, but rather the absence of something else: internet. The cabin, christened “Off the Grid,” offers no TV, no WiFi, no computers, no cellphone reception. To make a call, we drive a mile down the road to a little spot between the hills where you can get a signal. To triage my email, I drive over to Woodstock twice a week and spend half an hour on the computers at the library.

The prospect of an unplugged vacation turns out to be highly polarizing. “It pretty much instantly rules out two-thirds of the people who inquire,” the cabin’s owner says. “The other third wouldn’t have it any other way.”

We are—and very happily—in that other, neo-Luddite third.

My jeremiads on the topic of handheld-addiction and digital distraction are well known to my friends. Among those friends are many who, in theory anyway, share my belief that digital devices have become a kind of mass addiction, yet still find it really hard to unplug for any substantial period. That’s a widespread reality these days. Every few months, it seems, I read an essay breathlessly touting some device-free getaway camp whose adult attendees rhapsodize proudly about unplugging—for a weekend!   

Being away from screens for two weeks poses some logistical challenges, especially in trying to clear work and correspondence away beforehand—and catch up afterward. But the benefits, for my wife and me anyway, outweigh them. Time and space to read more. To exercise and be outdoors more. To prepare a real meal, instead of throwing something together in haste, as is (alas) too often the rule at home.

And, most of all, de-screening spurs conversation.

Throughout our two weeks in Vermont we entertain friends—couples and families who visit for a couple of days. Pretty much every night we end up sitting around the big table, four or six or eight of us, eating, drinking, and talking. It’s the kind of conversation that the hectic pace of life these days too frequently rules out: massive group talkfests, with lulls, peaks, breaks, passionate backs-and-forths; friendly agree-to-disagree moments; stemwinding storytelling; raucous jokes and plenty of laughter. Not infrequently, the talk goes on for hours. There’s nothing else to do, after all. Almost inevitably we all emerge with a sense of knowing and appreciating one another anew. It’s like receiving an injection of deep conviviality, a friendship booster.

In attempting to reckon the significance of unplugging for a couple of weeks, I think about the example of my just-turned-fifteen-year-old niece—my sister’s daughter—who joined us in Vermont with her parents and siblings. During vacations elsewhere I’ve seen her buried in her smartphone, texting and flicking away for hours at a time. Efforts to draw her out have generally failed. In Vermont I wondered, what would she do for three days?  

What she did was... hang out. From the cabin’s game closet she took a puzzle and went to work on it, setting up shop at a table by one of the giant picture windows with a view of the mountains. There she sat, as we grownups chattered away on the other side of the big room. I’d glance over to see her looking out the window or piecing together the puzzle—and, clearly, listening in on our conversations. Every now and then, when the talk took a particularly freewheeling turn, or someone indulged a boisterous expletive, I thought I saw a sly grin cross her face.

That grin recalled me to my own early adolescence, and how satisfying, edifying and even thrilling it could be to overhear my parents and their friends talking not for my benefit, but among themselves, openly and without filter, as I played the fly on the wall. This kind of happenstance eavesdropping makes for an important intergenerational connection. It involves an informal transmission of life knowledge—one that perhaps is endangered, and certainly attenuated, when kids and adults remain constantly connected to their devices, pursuing separate entertainments and communications.   

A recent article in the New York Times by health columnist Jane Brody, discussing how “children and teenagers become hooked on electronic media,” worries “that digital overload can impair a child’s social, emotional and intellectual growth,” and asserts that “parents are often at fault.” To those who are looking to limit their children’s screen time, Brody puts a bracing bit of advice in her column’s title: “How to Cut Children’s Screen Time? Say No to Yourself First.”

Model what you mandate.  When it comes to digital distraction, self-restraint begins at home.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

Also by this author
Fahrenheit 9/11 & Control Room

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