Don't make Facebook your "frenemy." Tips for helping travel and tech coexist.
Family vacations are a great time to recharge and connect with your kids, but connecting can be tough if they're plugged into their electronic devices day and night. Ever try to point out the sights to a kid engaged in battle on a Nintendo DS or have a heart-to-heart with a middle schooler whose ears are stuffed with ear buds? Ever plan a morning snorkel for the whole family only to find you can't pry your teen off the couch to trade Twitter for flippers?
We've all become enmeshed in media and technology in our real lives (step away from your iPad, parents). Vacation can be a time to unplug or at least limit the time you spend wired, in the interest of having more face time with the people you love.
Here are some strategies for striking a balance between family bonding and electronic engagement:
Leave it at home: You can't be distracted by what you don't bring. Chances are, even if you don't bring your own tablet or laptop, you'll be able to use one at the home of someone you're visiting or your hotel's business center—or you and the kids can make an adventure of finding an Internet cafe to use for an hour. You'd still have your smartphone for looking up Yelp reviews for dinner, tomorrow's weather forecast, and your flight status.
Or, you can take it with you: The upside of bringing a laptop, tablet, or even a smartphone is watching movies on the plane or in a car and having fun apps to play. This is great for passing the time to avoid boredom—but it's a good idea to decide on the appropriate time and place for screen time.
Follow the inside/outside rule: Try something like this: Tech is OK only at the house or hotel room, and only at night. Daytime is for outside play, adventure, exploring, and family interaction, so leave screens and devices back in the room.
Share your playlist: Make music sharing a fun part of your vacation. Have everyone in the family download a personal playlist to share with the group in the car or where you're staying. Kids can turn parents on to the music they love. Parents can expose kids to oldies from their era or program music to fit the vacation locale—slack-key guitar and ukulele for Hawaii (the soundtrack for "The Descendants" is an excellent collection), the Beach Boys for the California coast, zydeco music for New Orleans, and Disney songs for a trip to Disneyland. Sing-alongs are allowed and encouraged—and fans of the "Frozen" soundtrack will need no encouragement!
Get a local media fix: Instead of individual family members plugging into separate devices for an isolated film-viewing experience with headphones, go on a family outing to a theater near where you're staying. It's fun to share the experience with the locals.
Get off the phone: It would be ideal—but maybe not realistic—to put phones on lockdown. How about establishing a few rules that your family can agree on, such as "No texting during outings," "Phones are only for taking pictures until 6 p.m.," "Apps only in the car," or "Daytime is family time, friends are for after dinner"? Also, remember that in foreign lands putting phones on airplane mode not only cuts the time you isolate yourself from the group to text and email, it also saves you money (avoiding high data costs). You can make a game out of hunting for a WiFi zone where you can go online for free.
Friendly fire: Kids get homesick for their friends when they're out of town. Respect their desire to send vacation photos from their phones or via Snapchat, upload pictures to Instagram, chat on Facebook, or digitally communicate face to face via Skype or FaceTime. But taking a break from texting throughout the day is a good way to be here now; tell kids that if they're glued to their device, they're stepping out of the group experience, which shows a lack of courtesy to those around them (the family in "family vacation"). Agree on a time it's OK to contact friends—say, on a lazy afternoon when other family members are reading or napping, or after dinner.
Pack family games instead of video games: Kids love playing games such as Apples to Apples, Uno, or regular card games—all of which fit easily in a suitcase. Mad Libs and Car Bingo are great for the road. Charades is another fun one to get the whole family involved, and it requires no equipment at all. Unplug, and plug into fun with humans!