Do you notice that our traumatic news cycle seems to suggest the world is coming to an end? Sometimes the possibility seems uncomfortably close – I was supposed to go to Russia in 2022 before it started the war and became an Evil Empire again. I figured that if the world isn’t going to be around for much longer, I might as well see it now. So I went traveling with my kids. NOT to Russia.
From June to August I intentionally ignored the news, have not watched TV or YouTube, have not looked on social media. My screen time was limited to the essential technology I needed for travel:
- Phone camera for taking pictures
- Maps for finding our way
- Messengers for keeping in touch with loved ones
- Uber for taxis
- Airbnb for accommodation
So it was not a complete digital detox – more like a thoughtful digital minimalism, with technology as my servant – not my master. The days were for sightseeing, evenings were for reading and reflection (that is, after taking care of my kids and resolving their conflicts with each other).
Replacing Screens with Reality
To maximize our user engagement, digital media exposes us to negative content – which makes us permanently anxious. It also prevents our healing by DISPLACING healthy real world activities with artificial digital ones. We miss out on the meaningful experiences that we would otherwise be engaged in – if we were not stuck down in the rabbit hole of toxic content.
My theory is that displacement works both ways.
When you hike in the forest, explore artwork in the museum, or walk the streets of a bustling city, you can choose to be fully immersed in the experience. Browsing Facebook can wait.
Although extended travel in the company of 3 difficult kids usually raises questions about my sanity, I found that immersing ourselves in the real world away from addictive screens – for those of us who can find the time to do it – is an excellent recipe for digital wellbeing. This was true for me and for my children.
Here are a few takeaways from our experiences wandering the world.
Experience #1: Nature - West Coast
In the American West, you cannot help but rediscover the sense of awe and wonder – on the Central Coast of California, in Yosemite, Redwoods, and Olympic National Parks, in the national forests of Oregon. As an added bonus, nature makes screen time parenting easier:
- “Mom, what are we doing today?”
- Hiking. Tomorrow? Hiking. The day after? You guessed it – hiking. Maybe, going to the beach in the afternoon.
- “But when are we getting our screen time?!”
- When we get back in the evening, after dinner. And not for long, because you guys are exhausted and need to sleep.
Kids climbed trees, examined mushrooms, encountered animals, walked many miles every day, swam in lakes and oceans, and posed for photos. We talked and marveled at the scenery together.
There was no time for screens.
Experience #2: History and Culture - England, Scotland, Ireland
It is said that those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it, and we see plenty of suffering in the world today because of it. My hope is that my children would know the history of our civilization and learn to appreciate the rich cultural heritage they had seen in the places we visited.
Sometimes I had to point things out to them:
- Look, Magna Carta is the origin of our democracy
- See, Rosetta Stone was a key to deciphering Egyptian writing
- Can you comprehend the suffering people endured in the First and Second World War?
- Read this about Captain Cook – here is how Australia was discovered!
- These are the masterpieces of Leonardo da Vinci, Boticelli, and Van Gogh. What do you think?
- Could you consider studying in these old European universities – Oxford, St. Andrews, Trinity?
- These magnificent cathedrals took hundreds of years to build, and these castles had a dramatic medieval history that actually inspired your video games, cool, right?
But sometimes I saw them become fascinated independent of my guidance:
- My daughter found paintings with angels at the National Gallery in London and sat down with her sketchbook to draw their wings. At every palace and garden we visited she collected design ideas for her “future home”.
- My son was engrossed in the war history at the Imperial War museum and Churchill war rooms
- My younger one could not get enough of the interactive science museums, and loved exploring a real warship.
I cannot claim that my kids loved learning history, only that they were exposed to a lot of it and occasionally found some of it interesting. Every day was a “field trip”, sometimes two – to the greatest sights the countries we visited had to offer.
I hope something registered. Either way – there was no time for screens.
Experience #3: Friendship and Hospitality - Germany
We had the privilege to stay with our friends and spend a few days fully immersed in their life – eating out, hiking, praying at their church, even being invited to a block party. We lived like locals without speaking a word of German – which I think went a long way in developing cross-cultural skills in my children.
The most precious thing was the opportunity to spend time talking face-to-face – an experience very different from social media “I am ok – You’re ok” updates. It was deep and meaningful, we discussed our personal struggles that are not safe to share online – only with trusted friends – and really opened up to each other. While moms were talking, our teenage daughters were talking also.
This was mutual therapy.
There was no time for screens.
Experience #4: Our Shared Humanity - Turkey
Travel Souvenir #1: Perspective
When you break out of the silo of digital reality, custom-made for you by the algorithms that keep you “engaged”, and enter the actual reality of the 3D world with its infinite variety of sights and opinions, your mind opens up. You break free from the toxic echo chamber of identity politics on your screens. You start doubting that the “truth” you kept seeing in your feeds is at best an opinion, and at worst, manipulative fake news. Your walls crumble. You rediscover the values of tolerance and humility, becoming more human in the process. It’s scary and liberating at the same time.
When you travel, you realize that no one outside the US cares much about our liberal vs conservative politics – apart from how it affects the messy politics in their own countries. The same global problems are viewed differently – and you had no idea until you actually talked to people from other countries. We are not the center of the world. Others have bigger issues. Ukraine is under attack. Russia is a hostage. Europe is overrun with refugees and worried it will freeze in the winter, while Africa might starve.
All countries have their problems, and individually, every person everywhere is struggling with something too, only it is not obvious from their Facebook profiles. Paying attention to others puts our own problems in perspective – and helps us develop empathy and compassion along the way.
Travel Souvenir #2: Gratitude
International travel makes us understand other people’s lives. It also helps appreciate our own. To feel grateful.
Social media traps us in fake social comparisons: everyone else’s life is fabulous, and ours sucks. But when you travel, you really see how other people live – not their social media facades, but actual homes, shops, roads, and garbage dumps. Which allows you to compare your reality to someone else’s reality – apples to apples.
More often than not, your life suddenly does not look so bad. Travel allows us to appreciate our everyday non-travel blessings that we normally take for granted.
Here are a few things my entitled American kids noticed.
- Space. Houses and apartments are smaller – there is considerably less space in Europe because they ran out of it hundreds of years ago. One can marvel at the amount of IKEA functionality people squeeze into the tiniest of spaces.
- Comforts are not guaranteed. There is no AC, and it’s a heatwave in London.
- Roads. Those rural country lanes are charming but terrifying to drive. A one lane with no space to pull over, squeezed between 2 ancient stone walls is a 2-way traffic with an 80 kilometer speed limit, are they crazy?
- Smoking. What a relief to breathe clean air again after suffocating among the smoking Europeans! Have they not heard about cancer?
- Garbage. It’s not very tidy in big cities. When you take your eyes down from the cathedral spires to the pavement, it is covered in litter.
- Crowds. There are people everywhere – a lot of them. You have to be at the airport 4 hours before the flight just to have enough time to make it through security. Forget about getting into the most popular attractions without an advance reservation (which requires you to give up all your personal data). And where there are crowds, there is crime.
Here is a sobering thought: Europe is at capacity. As more people start to travel, popular destinations would simply run out of space. When our grandchildren travel there along with millions of tourists from all over the world, we are simply not going to fit. There is more space on this side of the Atlantic – big houses, big roads, big cars. We developed a new level of appreciation for America.
Travel gives us a basis of comparison.
Travel Souvenir #3: Learning
In the 19th century, once children were old enough, a well-to-do American family would often go on what was called a “Grand Tour” – a period of extended travel where they would visit a number of countries in the “old world” – Europe and Middle East.
Indulgence? Not quite.
The purpose of the trip was not entertainment, but education – to introduce young people to the heritage of human civilization, teach them to appreciate art and culture, and have them learn the lessons of history. In short, make them into well-rounded global citizens who would be responsible stewards of the world they inherit from previous generations.
Not a bad idea for our times, given what a mess the world is in today.
Travel Souvenir #4: Adaptability
According to multiple experts on optimal human performance, the ability to adapt quickly to a new situation is a key skill for success. How can we develop adaptability in our children so they are better prepared for life?
Simple – put them in uncomfortable situations.
Growth only happens outside the comfort zone. International travel provides plenty of opportunities for discomfort.
- We got lost.
- We had to ask for help from people who did not speak a word of English.
- We had no idea what food to buy.
- We had to drive on the wrong side of the road.
- We had to navigate medieval streets and international airports.
- Parking was a nightmare.
- We had people yell at us in a foreign language.
- We had to carry heavy luggage to the 4th floor.
- We got to stay in many different homes and figure out how things work in each one.
- We had to be vigilant against crime.
- We had to learn to use unfamiliar public transport systems.
- We had to do mental math to figure out fair prices.
- My son had to cross the Atlantic on his own.
And on, and on, and on – travel can be stressful. Multiple challenges to overcome every day, and my kids were helping me. They are experienced travelers now. They survived discomfort – and they got stronger.
Travel Souvenir #5: Memories
Our summertime was not wasted in easy-to-forget video game adventures. Instead, it was redeemed in precious family memories of actual adventures. How you spend your time is how you spend your life – our time had meaning and purpose. Even if my children decide to spend the rest of their lives in front of the screen, I can say to myself – I have shown them the world, and we experienced it together.
Because what could be more valuable than beautiful experiences shared with our loved ones?