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How to survive your vacation without Wi-Fi

A USC social media expert offers tips on camping without connectivity. (And they come from personal experience.)

Camping, tent,
Would you dare to go camping without your digital connection to friends and family? (Photo/Kiril Rusev)

You’ve loaded the tent and sleeping bags, programmed the GPS and filled the cooler. Now comes the hard part — prying the kids’ fingers loose from their keyboards. Wait till they find out there’s no Wi-Fi at the lake.

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 92 percent of American teens go online daily, and 24 percent say they’re online “almost constantly.”

We asked Karen North, a USC expert on psychology and social media, for survival tips for families heading into uncharted territory this summer — i.e., camping without connectivity. A clinical professor of communication, North is founding director of the M.S. in Digital Social Media program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. While her research explores the intersections between clinical and social psychology and the digital world, her expertise isn’t purely academic. Earlier this year, she and her husband survived a week in Yosemite with their digitally demanding 11-year-old twins.

What advice do you have for families planning a vacation out of digital contact?

With kids it’s important to say something ahead of time. For example, parents can say: “We’re going to have this great, exciting experience in nature, create our own entertainment and not be distracted by our usual distractions. Just remember, we’re going to be offline, so tell your friends.”

Let’s say the kids and their friends have been warned. What happens when reality sinks in and there’s no signal?

For people of all ages who are on their phones multiple times per hour, it will cause some level of discomfort. They might have that “OMG-where’s-my-phone?” feeling. But after a few hours — or it could be a day or two — they’ll adjust and be fine. A lot of people find they actually enjoy a “digital hiatus” or “digital detox.” It’s good and fun to have that real-time togetherness with people who are physically present.

Is there anything parents can say or do to ease the adjustment?

Parents can remind kids that while they may be missing out on whatever the daily conversation is online, they are having an exciting, different experience. And when they come back, they will have new things to post and share. Parents can also encourage kids to take pictures and write down their thoughts to share when they go back online.

The mistake parents sometimes make is to get upset when kids complain about not having access to their friends, games and videos. Don’t blame them for feeling that way because that is a part of their daily lives, and you are taking them out of their comfort zone.

Parents should remember that as kids, they were upset when they couldn’t see their friends or call them on the phone while on vacation. Human behavior never changes. The only thing that changes is the technology that mediates our interactions with each other. Kids don’t have to be in the same physical space anymore: entertainment is on-demand, and friends are on-demand, too. When kids want to be online all the time, it’s just a different version of the same kids-want-to-be-with-kids phenomenon.

Are you saying there’s nothing wrong with kids being screen zombies?

Many of us look at kids entertaining themselves with social and digital activities, and it looks like there’s a problem. They’re not out with their friends or doing something we consider productive or social, so we say: “Oh, there is the equivalent of an addiction or abuse.”

Addiction has a specific clinical definition that involves being compelled to do something, for example, use some kind of drug. If it’s taken away, there are consequences, for example, withdrawal symptoms. Usually when people talk about digital addiction, what they really mean is digital abuse. But even with abuse, the primary criterion for a diagnosis is that the activity or substance interferes with a person’s daily living. With kids and technology, it gets complicated because you have to ask: Does the digital device interfere with a kid’s daily living if he or she is behaving in the exact same way as his or her peers?

A big part of their daily lives is interacting with each other using digital devices —texting, snap chatting, playing games, watching videos and then curating them for each other. For most kids it’s the new normal.

For many adults, too.

It applies to everybody. Most of us are attached to our phones. Generally speaking, I don’t see the vast majority of these people as being addicted.

So that uncomfortable feeling we have when we’re offline — if it isn’t a digital addiction or digital abuse, what exactly is it?

It’s more like a nervous habit — like picking at your nails or tapping your feet. We have created a culture where we carry with us a communication device that allows people to text us, email us, interact on social networks, send and receive videos and photos. And it’s all in real time, in our hands, night and day. We are used to checking our phones every time we transition from one activity to another. If we go into an elevator or walk down the street, instead of looking up or having some kind socially uncomfortable moment, we look at our phones.

So how did your kids do in Yosemite?

Fine. They played card games, enjoyed juggling, hiking and bike riding. But the truth is, it’s getting to be where you almost never lose digital contact. In Yosemite our digital signal was pretty weak, but there was one. We all decided not to log in, and my husband and I were the ones who broke the rule.

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