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Travel Tech Rules: Screen Time vs. the Family Vacation

Mom and Dad want to check email. The kids want to Snapchat. Now what?

By Jen Jones Donatelli

Two decades ago, the packing list for a typical family vacation included items like sunscreen, bathing suits, and binoculars. Today’s packing list has expanded to also include items like iPads and smartphones.

No doubt, electronic devices have their place in family travel. They offer everything from picture taking, to on-the-road entertainment, to keeping in touch with the outside world. But what’s the secret to keeping the family togetherness in family vacations?

Travel Tech

For many parents, setting clear boundaries for travel tech is the key. For instance, when British mom Grainne Kelly travels with her two teenage sons, using devices at family meals is strictly off-limits. But she does permit “designated down time” for plugging in.

“Even on vacations, people need some alone time to work on self-care and process their day,” says Kelly. “Giving kids time to catch up with friends and social media will feel less like you are trying to cut them off from the ‘real’ world. Furthermore, it will be a less traumatic experience when you need them to unplug.”

Mom blogger Maria Lianos-Carbone says that allowing her kids to use their devices on an overseas flight greatly helped cut down on bickering. But when they landed, she asked her 13-year-old son to leave his phone in airplane mode for the duration of the trip. This approach had two benefits: Her son could still make use of the camera to take photos, but he didn’t use up any expensive data.

Screen Time: Parental Use Can Be Unavoidable

Sometimes, parents need to be plugged in for work even when they’re on vacation. That can complicate things. “Since my livelihood is freelancing and social media, I do have to check emails several times a day,” says Lianos-Carbone, who also needs to post daily on Instagram and Facebook. Lianos-Carbone tries to keep the emails to a minimum by setting up an out-of-office reply and only responding to time-sensitive emails and potential new clients.

Whatever rules you set for family travel, formalize them before the trip with a family meeting where everyone helps co-design a “Family Tech Agreement,” says Nicole Dreiske, executive director of the Chicago-based International Children’s Media Center and author of The Upside of Digital Devices.

And if your job may occasionally preclude you from honoring the agreement, Dreiske recommends being upfront.

“If you have deadlines to meet while traveling, opt for transparency,” suggests Dreiske. Say something like, “‘This trip is important to me, and being here with you guys is the most important. At the same time, I’ve got to get this proposal or article or report finished, so I’ll be working some nights.’” It’s a courtesy to give them a heads-up.

It’s How You Use It

While electronic connectedness can certainly interfere with family connectedness, the use of devices does have some benefits. It staves off boredom during transit, for instance, or helps with on-the-go research and documentation of memorable moments.

Kelly recommends making a shared Instagram account devoted exclusively to the trip, where all family members can login and share posts.

“This fun activity connects family members and friends, and gets social media urges out of everyone’s systems,” says Kelly. “At the end of each day, or better yet—after the vacation is over—go through all the pictures on the account. You may be surprised by the different perspectives.”

If you can’t reach a satisfying “family tech agreement” that keeps everyone’s noses out of their phones and iPads, consider traveling to a no-phone-zone. (Weekend in the Adirondacks, anyone?) It doesn’t necessarily have to be a remote destination in a far-off country. When Lianos-Carbone takes her sons to visit their grandparents in Florida, the house has no television or Wi-Fi. Instead, nights are spent renting movies or just chilling out together.

In the end, it’s all about finding the equation that works best for your brood.


Jen Donatelli

Jen Jones Donatelli is a freelance journalist, author of numerous books for teens and tweens, and regular contributor to Your Teen.