When Long Island native Susan Maushart was living in Australia with her three children, she pulled the plug on the family's electronics. For six months in 2009, she and her son and daughters, then ages 14, 15 and 18, gave up devices from iPods to cell phones to video games in their home.
Maushart wrote about the results of what the family came to call "The Experiment" in the new book "The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept With Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale" (Tarcher/Penguin paperback, $16.95).
"Technology isn't evil," Maushart says - in fact, now that she has moved to Mattituck with her youngest daughter, Sussy, 16, she relishes using Skype and Facebook to keep in close touch with her two older kids still in Australia.
But technology does need to be tamed, says Maushart, who found it easier to impose control in her home when she realized it was something she was doing not "to" her family but "for" her family.
Controlling technology use is like learning to have a positive relationship with food, says Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor and author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other" (Basic Books, $28.95). "You don't want to teach your children not to eat, you want to teach them to eat healthfully." Here are some less-extreme ways you can redefine your family's use of technology:
1. LEAD BY EXAMPLE
"Parents are modeling the very behavior that they are criticizing their children for," Turkle contends. "Parents text in the car while they're driving. Mothers are texting while they breast-feed. You can't introduce this concept (of limits) when they're 13 if before they're 13, you're reading them 'Harry Potter' with the right hand and texting with the left."
Turkle interviewed 300 children and 150 parents for her book and found particular times a parent's technology use bothers children: school pickup, watching sports with Dad and on the playground. "It's like taking away what's due them - full attention," Turkle says.
2. START WITH DINNER
"The worst place that texting is happening is at the dinner table," Turkle says. "That is sacred space." Dinner is the only time most families share.
Maushart would add bedrooms to the list of technology-free spaces, which she acknowledges can be difficult with teens. "There are some battles that are worth fighting. You have to take back your power. That sense of absolute entitlement really should be examined," Maushart says.
She still shuts off the modem every night so Sussy, a junior at Mattituck High School, can't use the Internet; an alternative would be taking away the laptop and phone at a certain time each night. She found Sussy sleeps better and gets better grades due to these kinds of restrictions.
3. MAKE TECHNOLOGY WORK FOR YOU
"The type of technology that worries parents is the type that intrudes on quality time," says Paul Mihailidis, an assistant professor of media studies at Hofstra University. He suggests using technology to engage with your children, such as playing Wii sports together. Or use video-chatting to allow kids to talk to cousins in a different town.
4. LIMIT TECH TIME
Setting limitations works best when you start it when children are young, Turkle says. Perhaps the computer is only used on weekends. Or one day a week is technology-free.
It shouldn't be presented as a punishment but as an opportunity to do something enjoyable together, such as a hike or playing board games, Mihailidis says. It's harder when children are in middle and high school, because a lot of their social lives are online, Mihailidis says.
5. DON'T SWALLOW THE 'HOMEWORK' REFRAIN
Maushart says she doesn't believe the kids' anthem: "I need to be online to do my homework." She calls it a "total scam" propagated by children and accepted unconditionally by parents afraid to jeopardize their children's grades. When Maushart's kids were on their laptops, only a fraction of their attention was on schoolwork. "There was usually a homework screen there somewhere, but it was most likely only clicked on when I was coming into view."
A 16-YEAR-OLD'S POINT OF VIEW
Susan Maushart's youngest child, Sussy Christensen, was initially a reluctant participant in "The Experiment," opting at first to live with her father rather than put up with the at-home technology ban. She really thought Facebook was "completely necessary to live" and that "you couldn't really do your homework without the Internet."
When the then-14-year-old came back to Mom's house, she got onboard with the project and learned that she could, in fact, survive in a tech-free zone, even though it put a crimp in her social life. Mom got Sussy and her brother and sister to open their minds and embrace the cold turkey concept by offering them payment as incentive - Sussy used hers to take a trip from their home in Perth at the time to Melbourne, and to go on a clothes-shopping spree.
"I might do it again when I'm a bit older," Sussy, 16, says of unplugging. "Not now. Not in high school."