Common Sense MediaBy Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media editor
Family vacations are a great time to recharge and connect with your kids, but connecting can be tough if they're plugged into their electronic devices day and night. Ever try to point out the sights to a kid engaged in battle on a Nintendo DS or have a heart-to-heart with a middle-schooler whose ears are stuffed with ear buds? Ever plan a morning snorkel for the whole family, only to find you can't pry your teen off the couch to trade Facebook for flippers?
We've all become enmeshed with media and technology in our real lives (step away from your Blackberry, parents). Vacation can be a time to unplug, or at least limit the time you spend wired, in the interest of having more face time with the people you love.
Here are some strategies for striking a balance between family bonding and electronic engagement:
Leave It at Home: You can't be distracted by what you don't bring. In my family, we've had vacations with and without bringing a laptop, and the ones without have been freer experiences. Chances are, even if you don't bring your own, you'll be able to use one at the home of someone you're visiting or at your hotel's business center -- or you and the kids can make an adventure out of finding an Internet cafe to use for an hour.
Or, You Can Take It With You: The upside of bringing a laptop, DVD player, iPad, or even an iPhone is watching movies on the plane or in a car and having fun apps to play. This is great for passing the time to avoid boredom, but it's a good idea to set limits about the appropriate time and place for screen time.
Follow the Inside/Out Rule: Tech is OK only back at the house or hotel room and only at night. Daytime is for outside play, adventure, exploring, and family interaction, so leave screens and devices back at the pad.
Share Your Playlist: Make music sharing a fun part of your vacation. Have everyone in the family make a personal playlist on an Mp3 player, and then share it with the group -- in the car or where you're staying. Kids can turn parents on to the music they love. Parents can expose kids to oldies from their era or program music to fit the vacation locale -- slack-key guitar and ukulele for Hawaii (the soundtrack for The Descendants is an excellent collection), the Beach Boys for the California coast, zydeco music for New Orleans, Disney songs for a trip to Disneyland, etc. Sing-alongs allowed and encouraged.
Get a Local Media Fix: Instead of individual family members plugging into their separate devices for an isolated film-viewing experience under headphones, go on a family outing to a movie theater near where you're staying. We saw the final Harry Potter film in a tiny theater on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, and it was fun to share the experience with the locals. In Paris, we saw an American movie with French subtitles!
Get off the Phone: Nothing is sadder than seeing a family pile out of their car at a scenic overlook and watching both kids and parents pull out their phones to text or check email. It makes you want to shout to your fellow tourists, "Hey, guys, that's the Grand Canyon down there!" It would be ideal -- but maybe not realistic -- to put phones on lockdown. But since they're handy for emergencies, connecting when family members get separated, and taking pictures and video, we must make peace with them. How about establishing a few rules that your family can agree on, such as "No texting during outings," "Phones for photos only until after 6," "Apps only in the car," or "Daytime is family time, friends are for after dinner"?
Friendly Fire: Kids get homesick for their friends when they're out of town. So respect their desire to send vacation photos from their phone, chat on Facebook, or digitally communicate face to face via Skype or FaceTime. Agree on a time that it's OK to do it -- say on a lazy afternoon when other family members are reading or napping, or after dinner. Taking a break from texting throughout the day is a good way to be here now.
Pack Family Games Instead of Video Games: Kids love playing games like Apples to Apples, Uno, or regular card games -- all of which fit easily in a suitcase. MadLibs and Car Bingo are great for the road. Charades is another fun one to get the whole family involved, and it requires no equipment at all. Unplug, and plug into fun with humans!
About Common Sense Media
Common Sense Media is dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology. We exist because our kids are growing up in a culture that profoundly impacts their physical, social, and emotional well-being. We provide families with the advice and media reviews they need in order to make the best choices for their children. Through our education programs and policy efforts, Common Sense Media empowers parents, educators, and young people to become knowledgeable and responsible digital citizens. For more information, go to:www.commonsense.org.