Your summer vacation, unplugged: Is it even possible?

A digital strategist took a family trip to the Bahamas, his digital devices in tow. A revelation inspired him to lock them away in the hotel safe. See what happens next.

This story first appeared on PR Daily in June 2011.

A month or so ago, we took a vacation to the Bahamas. It came at a time when I really needed it. We headed to the Cove at Atlantis; what I considered to be the perfect place for a quick family getaway. I like to be connected via technology, so I brought my iPhone, BlackBerry, iPad, Kindle, and laptop. Some of you, I’m sure, are already saying this is too much stuff, but I was in the middle of some important stuff at work so I was just trying to be prepared, hence the laptop. I had no real intention of setting up my laptop during a weeklong family vacation. I did plan to use my other devices, though.

After checking in to the hotel, we immediately headed to the pool and beach area to walk around and get some fresh air. As we strolled by the pool, all I saw were parents reading electronic devices while their kids (and iPhone-less nannies) played around them.

I would guess 80 percent or more were reading some sort of digital device, be it a smartphone or iPad. It then hit me: They were “connected,” but they were completely disconnected from their kids. A family vacation, I thought, should mean 100 percent connection with my family (OK, 97 percent). I didn’t want to be that dad who was always looking at his iPhone instead of focusing on his kids.

When we got to the room, I put all my devices intp the safe and planned not to look at a single one for the entire trip, short of two quick daily glances for emergency emails from work on my BlackBerry. For me, that meant no photo sharing on Facebook, no witty comments on Twitter, no blogging, no Foursquare check-ins, no reading my digital edition of USA Today. Nothing.

It also meant no music, and that I was going to have to carry a digital camera; you know, the old-fashioned kind that you have to—gasp—take out the mini-SD card and download the pictures to a computer. As I put everything into the safe, I knew it was going to be hard, but at the same time, I was embarrassed that the process was taking such a conscious effort. I thought, “Why is it such a big deal to disconnect from the world for six days?”

On the morning of the first day, we lathered up the kids with sunscreen, put on some T-shirts and shorts over our bathing suits, and headed down to breakfast. Along the way, the kids had so much fun stopping to look at the beautiful assortment of fish and sea creatures the Atlantis offers at every turn.

This kids and I couldn’t stop looking at them in the open ponds. I took numerous pictures of the kids looking and pointing at the fish. They were all smiles, and I loved their fascination with the fish.

Under normal conditions, this would have meant taking pictures with my iPhone and immediately posting a few on Facebook for friends and family to enjoy. Given my “unplugged” experiment, I took out my digital camera and snapped way. Friends and family would have to wait for Facebook pictures.

At breakfast, the “connected” were reading a variety of devices. Given the time of day and the abundance of flowing coffee, I assumed all were reading their favorite periodicals, though some even had iPads on the table to allow their toddlers a chance to catch up with cartoons.

After breakfast, we headed to the pool and all the “connected” parents were already deep into their devices. Some lay on their backs with arms stretched straight up, holding Kindles. Most others were sitting up, baseball caps or visors pulled down while they read their phones or iPads.

As I walked, my camera—hung around my neck by its cord—bounced in front of me with each step. We situated ourselves, and I immediately took some pictures of the kids. Within a few minutes, I had a nice collection of candid and posed pictures. The camera then went back into the case.

By now, in addition to Facebook posts, I would have normally texted a few pictures to my parents and sister so they could appreciate the moment, but they’d have to wait. Little did I know, they’d still be waiting.

We swam, and it eventually came time to lounge on the chaise. At that very moment, I had a great urge to reach for my BlackBerry and iPhone. Amazing, I thought—a moment of rest caused me to look for a phone. That can’t be good. So, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the sun for what seemed like an eternity, but was actually about four minutes.

I’m not a sun worshiper (any longer), and I really wanted something to read. If I had my iPhone with me, I’d be reading USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. But I didn’t. So, I sat there for another five minutes. The kids played busily in front of us, just five feet away. They were enjoying one another. That too, I thought, was vacation. Daddy didn’t have to be involved in everything.

The day and days went on with more fun, more meals, more sea life, and great events: building sand castles, searching for seashells, walks on the beach, and, because I was traveling with kids, more than a few “share that with your brother/sister” type of instructional comments.

During the vacation, the urge to reach for the BlackBerry took about two days to break. The desire to read the iPad for news took longer. The urge to check in—for instance, during dinner at Nobu—broke quickly. The urge to take a quick picture on my iPhone and post or text it never went away.

Our vacation ended weeks ago. I’ve only now downloaded the pictures to my computer, and my parents and sister still haven’t received any images of our vacation. My Facebook friends may never see anything more than the pic or two I posted.

What did I learn from my “unplugged” vacation experiment? A lot, but three things in particular:

1. I’m too connected sometimes. My kids’ image of me clearly includes me always looking at some device. I know this because at one point, Sophie asked me, “Daddy, where’s your phone?” That’s bad. I want them to remember me looking at them, into their eyes, not eyes down, glued to a BlackBerry or iPhone.

2. I confirmed I truly enjoy technology. I love what it can do and how it connects people. I now live so far away from my sister and parents, which is heartbreaking to me, and I love how I can share quick, impromptu images of my kids with them. They, too, love this. Facebook has also enabled me to connect with distant family around the world, which is amazing to me.

3. I learned that some people just don’t get it. I get so many comments—both positive and negative—about people’s feelings for Facebook. Really, if you like my posts, great. If you don’t get the whole Facebook thing, then either get with the program or leave me alone. For me, Facebook isn’t just about reading people’s silly posts, it’s about staying in touch with people I know. It’s about reading TechCrunch, seeing specials from my favorite stores, and getting a quick chuckle every day from some really funny friends. But I agree; despite all of this, reading your iPhone when you should be paying attention to the people around you is not a good thing.

So what does this all mean? The answer comes down to balance.

I’d like to say a completely “unplugged” vacation was better than a “connected” one, but I can’t. In the end, for me, there has to be a happy medium between “connected” and “unplugged.” I remember the days before cell phones and, frankly, I don’t want to live in that era again.

However, I need to be able to take a picture and post a picture to Facebook without taking the time to read everyone’s posts every time. Those extra moments are moments stolen from my real life, and they belong to my family and me. I also don’t need to read my email constantly. You can wait a bit for a reply from me; you’ll survive.

Two weeks after vacation, I can say I’m working toward this “connectivity” balance, and I think I’m better for it. More to come. In case I fall off the wagon, remind me of this post. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some pictures to upload.

A version of this story ran on John T. Peters’s personal blog.


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