PARENTS

The 12 Step E-Tox: How To Curb Your Electronic Device Addiction

09/17/2013 02:35 pm ET | Updated Sep 20, 2013

I always knew I had an addictive personality. I dive into everything headfirst, have never slept past 7 a.m. in my entire life and am fiercely type A with work. I’ve never picked up a cigarette because deep down I know I’d be in big trouble. Or dabbled in drugs. Or hopped a flight to Vegas. What I do have, however, is a mildly moderately very (this piece has been edited by my 10-year-old daughter) unhealthy attachment (read: addiction) to my electronics. For as long as I can remember, my computer and my phone have been more like appendages than accessories. If I’m not holding them, I’m looking at them. And if I don’t know where they are, I get viscerally nervous.

When my kids get home, I don’t exactly shut down -- I’m checking emails from all four accounts to make sure nobody needs me while simultaneously helping with homework and cooking dinner. I’m working on pitches, proposals and projects. I’m glancing at Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest to stay in the loop. And I’m buying 400 thread count sheets on One Kings Lane because what would happen if (gasp!) someone else put them in her cart before I did? (You know you do it, too.) I practice the big no-no of bedroom etiquette: bringing electronics (not the Fifty Shades of Grey type) to bed. What?

If you field texts while tending to your tots, spend more time on Facebook than with your spouse and compulsively shop online sales at all hours -- if you’re addicted to your tech devices -- here’s help.

Who doesn’t want to play Touch Rummy with a random opponent at 2 a.m.? I have a hard time separating life from work --much like many other career-committed moms. It’s nothing new. I’m nothing special.

In a world filled with shoes that arrive at your door faster than you can say Jimmy Choo, playdates made via text without having even one conversation with the annoying mom (did I just say that?) and conference calls that save hours of sitting in traffic, it’s no wonder we’ve spiraled out of control with our dependence on electronics. They make our lives easier, more efficient. They make us more accessible. But they also make us less personal, less focused, less engaged. Especially when it comes to being with our families. "The truth is, everybody has the potential to become addicted to technology, regardless of whether they have a genetic predisposition for it," says Hilarie Cash, PhD, author of Video Games & Your Kids: How Parents Stay in Control and co-founder of Internet/ Computer Addiction Services in Redmond, WA. "But it’s learning how to manage it that makes a difference."

This past January, I hit bottom. On a short vacation to the beach with my kids, I found myself running back to the hotel room for "sunscreen" when a full bottle was right there next to me and dashing out of the pool anytime I heard a blip (even if it wasn’t mine). It was pathetic, but I couldn’t stop myself. That is, until my 7-year-old daughter asked if I’d pleeease turn my phone off for the rest of the weekend and started to cry. It was then I knew: I needed an e-tox.

And yet, my plan would have to be different from the cold-turkey approach used by many treatment addiction centers (and by no means am I making light of these approaches). Because I work from home, my office comes with me wherever I go. Not that it’s an excuse (well, maybe a little one). But it does mean that my computer and phone are my only sources of communication with clients. Instead, I embarked on a slow but steady self-guided 12-step process. My girls were ecstatic: "Finally, you’ll pay attention to us instead of texting all day!" said Ryan, the younger one. "It won’t last," said Talia, the older one. I knew I had to succeed. And I’m sharing the plan so you, too, can e-tox your way to a saner family life.

THE STEPS

1. Admit you have a problem.

After making their favorite dinner, I sat down with my kids, took a deep breath and stated out loud: "I am addicted to my electronics," hoping for a better response than "Duh."

2. Decide where to start.

My e-tox didn’t begin until I got home from vacation. But in an ideal world, it’s helpful if you can get away from your house and normal day-to-day routine to kick-start the program. Dr. Cash suggests a weekend away in a new spot where you can focus on other activities and not be constantly reminded of your deviant behavior. I wasn’t able to do that, but it’s good to know for the future in case I have a relapse, which I won’t. Well, maybe I will.

3. Set reasonable parameters.

I realized I had to share my plan with my family. There was no possible way I could just turn off my electronics all week, so I decided to launch my e-tox by shutting down my computer for the entire weekend (starting with Friday school pickup) and putting it in a locked suitcase in my closet. I made it clear my phone would stay on, but I wouldn’t text or check Facebook. “Think in terms of harm reduction,” says Dr. Cash. “If you’re someone who’s drawn to social media or if you’re an excessive texter, choose to give that up for a while.” She suggests at least a two-or three-day break to normalize brain function for a mild addiction, longer for a more serious one. Choosing which components I could still access and which to shut down made it doable because I maintained a bit of control -- helpful for a control freak.

4. Accept withdrawal pains.

“People may experience similar withdrawal symptoms with electronics as they would with chemical dependencies, including restlessness, anxiety or depression,” says Dr. Cash. Mine kicked in almost immediately. I literally started shaking when I heard a text beep when we were out in public. My girls served as my parole officers conscience by reminding me whenever I veered off course that social media was off-limits. It also helped to stay busy by scheduling activities with my kids outside of the house.

5. Do a reality check.

Mine came in hard and clear during my withdrawal period, whenever I heard
a text come in or wanted to reach for my phone to go online. Here’s what it screamed: I’m just not that important. Nope. Before phones became ubiquitous, I used to make fun of people who were on them in the same way I would when I saw anyone use a beeper who wasn’t a doctor. Unless I’m saving lives, nobody really needs me that badly. And if they do, they’ll just have to wait. Stating this out loud made me realize that I didn’t need to check my devices nearly as much as I had been.

6. Take personal inventory.

This is where you decide if it’s truly the electronics that are controlling you or if there’s an underlying issue (cue the therapist). For me, it was about trying to do too many things at once, none of which seemed to get done well. By redirecting my focus onto one activity at a time (e.g., time with my kids, work, making dinner) and only involving electronics when they were truly necessary, I became more focused and ultimately more productive with each task.

7. Reconnect with your body.

Nothing helps you get out of a stressful time more than exercise and some good old-fashioned sweat. I needed to create a sacred space just for me where there were no kids, no work and no electronics. I found it in the form of kickboxing. Punching bags, gloves and all. Once those endorphins were flowing, I knew I was capable of making changes and sticking to them because I felt empowered. Three one-hour workouts a week of any type is recommended (I could only fit in one), but do whatever you can until your schedule permits more.

8. Make amends.

This was harder than I thought. I spend so much time making my kids apologize for things that I realized it was high time I did, too. They milked it for all it’s worth -- because in their eyes, verbal apologies weren’t sufficient. Noooo, apologies must come in the form of ice cream, extra TV time and staying up late on school nights. I obliged. (Do I now need an apology detox?)

9. Set car rules.

This deserves a step all its own simply because if you don’t set parameters in your car, you’ll wind up in big trouble (actual danger notwithstanding). For me, it meant putting my phone (including its GPS system) in my purse and stashing it in the trunk. Out of sight, out of reach. There should never, ever be a reason to grab and text (even though I was guilty of this at stoplights). Refer again to step No. 5. Yep, I’m just not that important. And if I get lost, I’ll go retro and stop at a gas station and ask for directions! Remember those days?

10. Reintroduce gradually.

After an entire day went by without texting and checking social media, I actually felt less anxious. I felt liberated. I felt recalibrated. I rediscovered Monopoly! And sidewalk chalk! And non-iPad Gin Rummy! By the time I turned my computer back on come Monday morning, I had an all-new relationship with it. I didn’t rely on it as much. Because I knew it would no longer control me.

11. Allow for regression.

That’s not to say the temptation didn’t creep back into my life on day two post e-tox. And it will creep back into yours, too. Luckily, I have two girls who remind me daily that I still have a problem. “Don’t forget about your article!” my 7-year-old says whenever I reach for my phone at “inappropriate phone times” (she coined that). Always good to keep your parole officer conscience on your shoulder.

12. Find a new normal.

And so a renewed life emerged. Seven days after my e-tox began, my computer and my phone returned once again to being the helpful tools they were meant to be -- not replacements for my entire brain. I did the heavy lifting during a three-day weekend, but it was in the entire first week that all the steps came together, setting the tone for what will hopefully be my everlasting relationship with my electronics -- and a stronger face-to-face life with my family. Worth a few withdrawal pains, don’t you think?

E-Tox Tips For Kids

If your children are too attached to tech, give these tactics a try.

Eat gadget-free. Resist the urge to hand your little guy your smartphone the minute you enter a restaurant. Instead, have him pick the topic of conversation before you get there so he’s ready to launch into it once you sit down. Or bring a non-electronic substitute like the adorable Restaurant Savers portable art studio from Happy Burping ($18, happyburping.com), so he can color and you can help.

Set boundaries. Reward kids with computer time after they’ve done homework or chores. Just don’t let it get too close to bedtime -- the lights will stimulate their little brains.

Go outside. Make a lemonade stand; send the kids to climb a tree; play hide-and-seek in the backyard. There’s no reason to be indoors clicking away on a sunny day.

Let them be bored. This is where creative imaginations work best. Always using electronics to fill downtime can stifle kids’ creativity and their interactions with others. You’re the parent; you set the parameters. If you don’t give kids electronics or TV time, eventually they’ll have to come up with something else to do. Like we did. Back in the Stone Age.

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