Resolved to Unplug

in a Wi-Fi world, some Chippewa Vallians are taking steps to get away from the screen

Barbara Arnold

By the time this issue of Volume One is published, we’ll be 24 days into 2018. Forty-one percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, according to the website Statistic Brain. Some of you are sticking to ’em. Others may have broken them. And many didn’t make any. (Hard to improve on perfection, you know.)

These Chippewa Valley parents are taking responsibility for their children’s future. They are creating the kind of school and culture they want their children to grow up in: learning about the four seasons, how milk comes from a cow and not a carton, and how spring peepers make tadpoles that grow into frogs. 

A recent post on BuzzFeed showed a minion from the movie Despicable Me with the words: “Okay so you are 10 years old, you have a laptop, iPad, Facebook, an iPhone. … Dude, when I was 10 I only had one thing to play with … it was called OUTSIDE.”
Now with the dangerously frigid weather we’ve been having, outside may not be where you want to be, but the point is still relevant. And it transcends generations: In the 1950s, some parents likely got concerned about the advent of television, and how that would impact their children’s health, wealth, wisdom, and future.

Today, everywhere we turn, we have screens – in the palms of our hands, our laps, our desks, our cars, as well as ginormous TV screens – to occupy our minds, time, and energy. We check our phones on average 47 times a day, according to a recent survey by the professional services firm Deloitte. In a 12-hour day, that’s about every 15 minutes – to read or send a text, to check on our kiddos, to scroll through Facebook, or to make a call (if anyone does that anymore). 

Dan Monfre, a UW-Eau Claire grad who founded the travel website thisworldrocks.com, became painfully aware of his reliance – or perhaps even addiction – to his smartphone, while circling the globe on a two-year backpack journey. In his prior life, he was in charge of radio and TV digital sales for a Twin Cities network where his livelihood depended on smartphone connections. As a world traveler, he was living in the moment, ever present to his surroundings, and many times he was in developing countries where Wi-Fi access was spotty. Yet, during the first month or so, he unconsciously reached to check his phone for messages, until he consciously had to break the habit.

Screen time has been linked to depression in teenagers, and a recent article in The Atlantic warns that our current generation of kids, which the author calls “i-GEN.” are on the brink of a mental health crisis because of their extended screen times and use of their smartphones primarily by themselves, in their bedrooms. It’s no surprise that such usage leads to sleep deprivation, which can compound depression. 

In the title of the article, author Jean M. Twenge asks the question “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?” as she also observed how new media has taken over the lives of her own children. “I’ve observed my toddler, barely old enough to walk, confidently swiping her way through an iPad,” she writes. “I’ve experienced my 6-year-old asking for her own cellphone. I’ve overhead my 9-year-old discussing the latest app to sweep the fourth grade.”

So when the Eau Claire school board voted recently to support a group of parents to formally develop their proposal to create a charter school focused on the outdoors and the environment in the former Little Red School just outside Eau Claire, I was ecstatic. Beaver Creek Reserve hosts a similar school, and UWEC’s pre-school at the Priory, called the Children’s Nature Academy, also focuses on the outdoors. 

These Chippewa Valley parents are taking responsibility for their children’s future. They are creating the kind of school and culture they want their children to grow up in: learning about the four seasons, how milk comes from a cow and not a carton, and how spring peepers make tadpoles that grow into frogs. 

They could also learn from local writer Julian Emerson, whose parents chose to leave the civilization of Minneapolis-St. Paul and raise their children in the woods of western Wisconsin, living much like Henry David Thoreau, who wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…” 

The answer to over-emphasis on technology is moderation. Take a break. Unplug. Be intentional about it. It doesn’t have to be the outdoors. Do something else. Sing a song. Paint a picture. Play with Legos. 

Can we consciously declare a technology-free day once a week or a few hours each day to engage in doing something else, perhaps even face-to-face conversation, rather than being nose up to our screen? 

Consider pop singer Ed Sheeran, who has been smartphone free for two years. He shares that disconnecting has helped him find balance in his life. Now, rather than waking up to 50 messages to respond to, he’s waking up to enjoy a cup of tea. Very English, mind you. In the Chippewa Valley, that might be a welcome cup of coffee or hot chocolate. Skol!

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