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Before our first child was born last year, my wife and I often deliberated about the kind of parents we wanted to be—and the kind we didn’t. We watched families at restaurants sitting in silence, glued to their phones, barely taking their eyes off the screens between bites. We saw children paw at their parents, desperate to interact, only to be handed an iPad to keep quiet. We didn’t want to live like that. We vowed to be present with one another, at home and in public. We wanted our child to watch us paying attention to each other and to him.
The reality, after our son was born, was quite different. In those sleep-deprived early days, I found myself resorting to my phone as a refuge from the chaos. I fell into some embarrassing middle-aged-dad stereotypes. I developed a bizarre interest in forums about personal finance and vintage hats. I spent up to four hours a day looking at my phone while right in front of me was this new, beautiful life, a baby we had dreamed about for years.
My wife, Cristina, felt abandoned in the isolation of new motherhood and complained of my near-constant phone use.
“When you look at your phone,” she told me, “it’s as though you disappear.”
When it comes to having an unhealthy relationship with technology, I’m in good company. Most of us find that smartphones have made our lives better, but we struggle to use them in healthy ways. Nearly 60 percent of American adults told Gallup last year that they use their phones too often. American adults spend an average of four and a half hours on their phones each day, the research firm Insider Intelligence reported this summer. Almost all of us keep our smartphones within arm’s reach during waking hours, Gallup found, and most of us do so when we sleep.
Such easy and constant access to distraction is having an impact: Overuse harms our sleep and mental health. Constant distraction makes us less productive and can impair our ability to concentrate. Studies have shown that the mere presence of a smartphone can reduce our cognitive ability by taking attention away from other tasks—even if the phone is turned off. A majority of married couples report that their partner’s divided attention has caused strife in their relationship.
On a warm Saturday afternoon this past spring, I reached a breaking point. I had been on my phone for hours a day for the past several weeks. I found myself reaching for the phone whenever there was an opportunity or brief pause in parenting responsibilities. Was this what life was going to be like for the next 30 years? Days filled with a series of small interruptions while I scrolled for scraps of trivia and news?
While our child napped that afternoon, I sat brooding on the porch. I told Cristina that I wasn’t happy with the way we were living and that I didn’t know what to do to get back on track.
“It sounds like we should get rid of the internet,” she told me.
I knew she was right. For years, we had discussed raising our child in a tech-lite home, but we had become so overwhelmed with parenting that this priority had been pushed aside. We had tried half measures before: setting a timer on the Wi-Fi router that shut it off during evening hours, making “no phone” zones in the house. But these were too easy to get around. To achieve what we truly wanted—a home that served as a sanctuary for meaningful family time without distractions—this was the step we needed to take. We talked about how spaces that were once off-limits for technology seemed to dwindle by the day. Our National Parks, public restrooms, even places of worship are now game for digital connection. We felt it was important to have at least one space in our lives that would be set apart. We agreed that our home, the one place where we still had control, would be a fine option.
“When?” I asked.
“Now,” she said.
As Millennials born in the mid-1980s, my wife and I are part of the last generation to have known life before the introduction of widespread home-internet access. We straddle both sides of the digital revolution. We remember answering the telephone without knowing who was calling, showing up at a friend’s house unannounced, what it was like to be lost and bored. In my 20s, I traveled across Europe, Latin America, and Asia for months without a phone, relying only on guidebooks and advice from strangers. I hitchhiked across the American South with a flip phone. I did a stint on a commercial fishing crew in Alaska, which put me completely off the grid for five months without access to a phone or the internet.
Cristina and I had also gone off the grid together earlier in our marriage. In 2018, we moved into a 72-square-foot tiny house we built into a cargo van, where we lived for two years, mostly on public lands and without Wi-Fi. In the wilderness, cellular data were limited, so we logged on only for essentials when we popped back into civilization. It was on the fringes where we first tasted the joy of a life in which the internet was merely a tool.
Without distractions, the days seemed to expand. We learned to harvest time, an idea that came to us in national forests across the U.S. We realized that days undisturbed by digital interruptions made time slow down and improved the quality of our time together. Life was broken down to its most basic elements: Find a place to sleep; cook simple meals to eat; bathe in a river; explore. We promised ourselves that when our time in the van came to an end, we would continue living this way as best we could. (We didn’t, of course; the pandemic started not long after our return to civilization, making the internet feel essential for work and social interaction.)
So yes, we’d had some practice with this before. Surely we could make it work.
But we did need to plan. We live in a log cabin beyond the reach of cell towers in North Carolina’s rural High Country, and up until that point we had relied on Wi-Fi to make phone calls. We might be crazy enough to cut our home off from the internet, but we didn’t want to be completely disconnected. We were trying to relive the ’90s, sure, but not the 1890s. Opting out of the internet would require us to opt in to a landline, which raised even more questions: If we needed to call a doctor, how would we find the phone number? What if we needed an emergency plumber? Turns out, the Yellow Pages still exist. (They’re actually called The Real Yellow Pages, as though dozens of imposter phone books are out there.)
When the technician from the phone company arrived to put in our landline, I asked him, “Do you install many landlines these days?”
“Mostly just for old people,” he said.
I told him we were doing it in hopes of making our lives simpler. He just nodded as if to say, Sure, man, whatever.
With a couple of twists of his tools, the room filled with a sound I hadn’t heard in ages: a dial tone. That long-forgotten but familiar pitch instantly brought me back to childhood: the anticipation of calling my best friend to ask if he wanted to come outside and play hockey in the street, or the nervous dread in middle school of calling a girl for the first time.
“You know,” the technician said before walking out the door, “most people just use Wi-Fi calling.”
I spent our final morning with internet service on a content binge. I scrolled Twitter. Using a family member’s borrowed password, I pulled up one final movie on Netflix: This Is the End. Halfway through the first act, Seth Rogen and James Franco suddenly froze on the screen. The house went quiet. We were officially disconnected.
Like any form of withdrawal, the first days offline required adjustment. With nowhere to scroll, I developed a voracious appetite for words. I had downloaded digital versions of magazines to an iPad and loaded my nightstand with books from the library. I devoured them all, and started reading anything I could get my hands on.
Over time, the racing pace of a mind that had been hooked on content slowed down. I began to read deeply, sometimes for hours, consuming complex works that I would have struggled to focus on before.
While reading news articles, I still felt an old tug to share links through social media. But now there was no one to share them with. I was reading purely for reading’s sake, sharing an intimate moment with no one but the author. It made reading and thinking a private act, without any temptation to be performative in sharing my opinions. Reading through entire publications, instead of finding stories through a social-media algorithm that fed me a narrow range of content it thought I would enjoy, exposed me to a broader range of opinions, viewpoints, and types of stories. It made me a better consumer of news.
At the end of the first week, my phone reported that my screen time had plummeted by 80 percent. I had reclaimed several hours a day, time that I used to play games with my son, cook elaborate meals, engage in uninterrupted work, and take long walks with my family. Sometimes I just sat and thought, a radical act in our hustle culture. I daydreamed, letting my mind travel where it pleased with no agenda or direction. I realized that it had been years since I’d last allowed myself to do, well, nothing.
Friends and family have responded with bewilderment and concerned amusement. “I could never do that,” people often tell us, “but I wish I could.” One friend—a former chief of staff for a Republican member of Congress—tried to sign me up for a print subscription to Hustler magazine. (This unsolicited gesture of concern for my sexual well-being failed because of a new anti-porn law in his state. And thank heavens for that: We rent our home from a Bible scholar and minister.) Other friends, knowing that our landline doesn’t have caller ID, occasionally prank call us like we did when we were teenagers. (We welcome it; the calls lead to long, meaningful opportunities to catch up after years of texting.) When we aren’t home, callers seem amused to leave a real voice message on our answering machine. It’s fun to listen to younger people leave messages; they are adorably befuddled by what to say. When a friend in her 20s tried to call and got a busy signal, she figured the phone was broken: She’d never heard that sound before.
Of course, this has also come with trade-offs.
One night, while watching a DVD in our basement, Cristina and I saw a dark object flash across the screen. Did a bird get into the house? I stood up to turn on a light and saw another flying object with wide black wings silently swoop past my head.
“It’s a bat!” Cristina yelled. She leaped off the couch onto the ground and threw me a blanket. “Cover your head!”
As our eyes adjusted to the light, we watched several bats stream out of our fireplace, flying in circles around our heads. On our bellies, we crawled up the stairs and fled into our bedroom, shutting the door behind us. In normal times, we would have pulled out our phones and started frantically searching for what to do when your house is infested with bats. But we didn’t have that option. It was nearly midnight, too late to phone a friend, so we just had to pray that the bats hadn’t made it into our bedroom. We covered the baby’s crib with a mosquito net and tried to go to sleep.
The next morning, Cristina called her mother and asked her to search for information while I plunged into the phone book for the number of an exterminator. Over the phone, Cristina’s mother read us information about how to handle bats and whether we’d need a rabies shot. She described in detail how to identify bat poop. My mother-in-law was literally reading us the internet. It felt ridiculous.
Beyond battling bats in our basement, not having access to the internet also makes working from home a unique challenge. As a journalist, being virtually unreachable has done wonders for my ability to write for long stretches without distraction. But I have to leave the house in search of Wi-Fi to finish some tasks, such as responding to emails from editors, participating in group calls on Zoom, or performing other collaborative work that can only be done online. I spend hours during the workday holed up in my office or the local library, time that otherwise could be spent with a laptop on my couch. When coordinating work calls, I have to give out two phone numbers, depending on whether I’m home or not. I sometimes have to hop in the car before bed and drive down the mountain to check a last-minute email. My job as a university lecturer requires me to be present in the classroom, so I aim to accomplish as much work as possible on campus.
Separating spaces for online work and home life has helped me draw a sharp dividing line between my responsibilities to family and employer. The rise of telecommuting, supercharged by the pandemic, seems to have been a mixed bag, even for employees who enjoy it. Workers have more flexibility, but they are now expected to be reachable beyond work hours. Burnout persists. Working from home with children in the house has its own challenges.
Shopping requires careful planning. Without Amazon, we buy most of our goods in person at stores in town. We still order things online, but we can’t do it impulsively, and we buy fewer things as a result. While I was out shopping recently, I called Cristina at home to see if she needed anything at the store. “Just text me a list,” I said, completely forgetting that she quite literally could not. So we made our list the old-fashioned way. We talked about what we needed and I wrote it on a piece of paper.
I acknowledge the immense privilege of being able to choose to opt out of a service that people rely on to get by in daily life. I also benefit from work that can be done partially on my own schedule and a job that provides parental leave, which was when we made this decision. But now that we have made this change in our lives, I will grieve if we ever have to return to the life we had before. Our tech-lite experiment will only become more difficult in the future, as more parts of our society require online connection to function. As our child grows, he will no doubt start to wonder why we don’t have the same access his friends have. What if he attends a school that requires online homework? Will we be those parents who resist? My own work in the future might not be possible offline.
Still, we’re not the only ones exploring ways to limit technology’s role in our lives. England recently advised schools to impose complete bans on cellphone use, a move that is slowly being adopted by some American school districts. A subset of Americans who want more control over their digital life are trading their smartphones for old-fashioned flip phones; Gen Z teenagers are leading the charge. It’s no mystery why vacationers are flocking to vacation rentals that offer “off-the-grid” properties without internet service as though it’s a special luxury.
Most people won’t—or can’t—go as far as we did. But they can set aside space in their lives uncluttered by devices, or their insatiable demand for our attention. Establishing a space beyond tech’s reach is a way of declaring independence from our unsettling reliance on technology. It reminds us that we can live and thrive without it—and happily so. Our family certainly has.
“I like you better without the internet,” Cristina told me recently.
So do I.
Tyler Fields is your internet guru, delving into the latest trends, developments, and issues shaping the online world. With a focus on internet culture, cybersecurity, and emerging technologies, Tyler keeps readers informed about the dynamic landscape of the internet and its impact on our digital lives.