Watching ducks paddle along the edge of Lake Dunmore on a beautiful late May afternoon three years ago, my then-9-year-old son shrugged his shoulders and let out a big sigh.
"What is it?" I asked.
He looked wistfully across the blue water. "I wish I was playing Minecraft," he said.
That's the moment I realized something needed to change.
Minecraft is an online game where you "mine" or dig for materials in a 3D world composed of boxy, pixelated blocks. They look like computer-generated Legos. You can grow crops, build cities, raise livestock and armies, and — depending on if you choose "creative" or "survival" mode — defend your creations from an assortment of destructive creatures. Minecraft is open-ended, allowing players to virtually build anything they can imagine.
We only allowed one hour of screen time each day, but my son was obsessed with the game. It invaded his off-screen life. His writing at school revolved around Minecraft characters. His artwork was pixelated. He had trouble falling asleep at night because he was constantly playing the game in his mind. The curious and engaged boy I once knew seemed permanently distracted, as if he always wanted to be somewhere else.
The Minecraft world was drawing my son away from the world we shared, and I was determined to do something about it. That's part of what prompted our family — my husband, Mark, and I, our son, and then-8-year-old daughter — to decide to go without screens for an entire summer.
On the last day of school, we stored the TV in the barn and disconnected the wireless router. No Netflix, Hulu, podcasts or Pinterest. (The single exception: email. It was necessary for business, so Mark and I were allowed to check it twice daily on our desktop computer.)
The first few days went smoothly for the kids. They rediscovered board games, devoured Harry Potter books and puttered around the backyard. I, on the other hand, found going about my daily routine unexpectedly stressful without the distraction of podcasts or easy connections on Facebook. When Mark came home from work, our habit of winding down while watching "The Daily Show" together on Hulu turned into some surprisingly awkward moments. "What do you want do?" I'd ask. "I don't know, what do you want to do?" he'd reply.
Minecraft was hard to replace. Our home did not provide an unlimited variety of terrain, habitats and materials to build with. Our son could not dominate the household pets the same way he controlled large flocks of pixelated creatures. Without access to Minecraft, he had to rediscover his own sense of play and imagination. This took time, and cries of "I'm bored!" were common after the novelty of the experiment wore off.
But slowly, the boredom and discomfort transformed into opportunity — for all of us. We shared the same space together instead of occupying the separate worlds of Minecraft, Vermont Public Radio and Nickelodeon. We talked more, and my son and daughter played together more often. They drew pictures and wrote stories. Mark's and my evening TV habit was replaced by a nightly chess game that left us feeling more connected than when we were just staring at a screen together.
We also relied more on others. Instead of using Google to get information, we walked to the library or called someone who was more knowledgeable. When I needed a recipe, I asked a friend or neighbor. We planned ahead more. We folded and unfolded maps, and stopped to ask directions. We read the newspaper and dusted off the dictionary.
Going cold turkey helped us see how technology altered our lives and relationships in a way that just limiting media wouldn't have. The impulse to keep looking elsewhere — checking email, texts or Facebook — faded over time. We reconnected with inner voices that spoke to us through the silence.
We've recently completed our third media-free summer. Admittedly, we enter each September with anticipation. Family movie night is back! The TV and Wii are reinstalled, and iPods emerge from hibernation. But rather than a sudden, gleeful technology binge, the web slowly weaves itself back into our lives. We remain deliberate about our use throughout the year, and some of us have made permanent changes to our habits. At the end of our second screen-free summer, my son came up to me while I was setting the table.
"Mom" he said, "I've decided not to play Minecraft anymore. I think it affects my creativity. I get too obsessed with it."
When I asked him to tell me more, he said Minecraft was fun, but it didn't teach him any real skills, other than building things in Minecraft. He recognized that what initially seemed like endless possibilities for creation became, for him, an imagination limited to the ideas of game programmers. He's visited his Minecraft world a few times since, but it has been almost two years since he consistently played that — or any other — video game.
Being separated from digital media for three months every year has made us all aware that accessing it is a choice, one that can profoundly affect our ability to be present in our everyday lives. I'm grateful that my son can now sit at the lake, admiring the birds and bathing in the sunshine, without wishing he was in a different, more pixelated, world.