Family road trips can come down to a single dynamic: Mom or Dad driving the SUV while everyone else stares at their phones. That is a typical lament from parents concerned that the intrusion of technology has resulted in a total breakdown of familial communication — one that was created, oddly enough, by communication devices.
But in this time of COVID-19 self-quarantine and social distancing, screens have emerged as an important resource for staying in touch with the outside world. Parents and children alike are spending large swaths of time on Zoom and other group communication tools for both work and school, and in the early weeks of the outbreak, TV viewing for channels like Disney Channel and Cartoon Network rose 43 percent and 58 percent, respectively, according to digital news site Digiday.
As The New York Times reported last month, this is a time and circumstance for more nuanced views of screen time and how it is used. There are great ways to spend time with devices, but the only way to get a child to temporarily part ways with Fortnite, Minecraft or YouTube videos of epic fails is to offer something better.
My son Sam is 15 years old, and one of his favorite places to travel in Oklahoma is the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, a 59,000-acre stretch of craggy mountain trails, free-ranging bison, prairie dog towns and terrible cell phone service. Generally, Sam uses more discretion in how he spends time with his phone than the average teenager, but once we pass the entrance to Mount Scott on the edge of Medicine Park, his phone might as well be a brick, and he does not care whatsoever.
Connectivity is mostly out of the equation except at high altitudes. Taking the Quanah Parker Trail should not require an incentive for anyone who sees the rocky summit in the distance, but in case of recalcitrant teens, just let them know that three bars of 4G service await them at the top.
“Being dragged along on a sojourn that was not their idea is a major eye-roll inducer for teens.”
Unlike his mother and father, Sam likes to plan things — like, everything. He is not alone: being dragged along on a sojourn that was not their idea is a major eye-roll inducer for teens. While it is generally good parenting to make future plans a discussion rather than an order, this is especially true with vacations. On a recent trip to Austin, Sam planned a coffee shop tour of the city with stops at the ultra-sleek Merit Coffee, Fleet and Radio Coffee and Beer, where more than one kind of brew is served. The only time he was on his phone was to point us to our next stop for delicious liquid jitters.
It should be noted that some of these activities are not on the table during social distancing. Not every coffee shop is open or offering curbside service, and there are numerous reports of trails being clogged with city dwellers desperate to escape their houses and finding that hiking is not always a social distancing-friendly two-way street.
Depending on children’s ages, a camping trip in the backyard can have the desired effect of reducing screen time, and a store-bought or homemade fire pit can make the experience even campier. Order some hot dogs delivered from a favorite shopping service and roast them over the fire, and since a lot of teenagers are passive pyromaniacs or just pyro-curious, this will keep their focus on a natural light rather than the cold blue one emanating from their phones.
But remember, not all screen time is time wasted. Sam is enormously interested in animals, and enjoyed the Oklahoma City Zoo’s OKC Zoo@Two daily video conferences featuring staff introducing different zoo residents and an online library of past programs, and there are many aquariums and other zoos providing wild experiences at safe distances.
This summer, giving kids command over their version of family fun, with or without screens, can provide them a coveted bit of control and you some oft-elusive clout.
George Lang has worked in journalism for 25 years and has written or edited for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma Gazette and other area publications. He currently teaches at ACM@UCO and hosts “Spy 101” on KOSU/The Spy. He and his wife Laura, chief executive officer at Thrive, Inc., and their son Sam live, work and school in Oklahoma City.