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Family Digital Detox: 5 Truths We Learned on the Appalachian Trail

The idea seemed enticing. Thirty days on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). Just us: my husband, my four-year-old, my one-year-old, no digital media, (except for a messaging app and an app to lead us to spring water and shelter), a tent, and the trail beneath our feet.

We had spent months prepping, packaging food, buying the right equipment, and getting trained. It was the middle of the pandemic, and we were suffering from a digital hangover. We wanted to relearn how to be fully present, breathe in nature, and experience life to its fullest. Then came Day One.

We were hiking at 1000 feet of elevation. My husband pulled our gear, diapers and food up on a customized wheel while I carried our daughter in the backpack, and we encouraged our son to use his legs. We barely made it up the mountain. It was May 7th, yet the air was freezing. Our load was unbearably heavy. Then it started raining like there was no tomorrow. We could not imagine carrying on one more day. We were ready to quit. 

Instead of walking back to the car, we bumped into an adventurer who had spent his entire adult life hiking the US and world. People referred to him as a “trail angel.” With his trail wisdom, we decided to keep going and endured. What happened over the next 30 days was one of the most growing and enriching experiences we have ever experienced as a family.

5 truths we learned on the Appalachian Trail

1. True growth happens with real effort

We live in this world where we value the maximization of profit and the minimization of effort. The digital world is saturated with one more like, one more click, another video, and another game, with huge rewards that require minimal investment. Yet, true transformation happens when we give it all. We have watched our kids transform within these 30 days. They were stronger, braver, and more confident. They knew what we had overcome as a family and that they had contributed their part.

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2. In order to feel truly alive, we need to connect with body, soul and spirit

In our day and age, we are standing at a gaping cliff easily losing our souls. All of us are made up of mind, body and soul. Yet, on our devices so little of what makes us fully human shows up. Online, our bodies aren’t active, our souls are weary and what we interact with often quenches our spirit. If we want to revitalize what makes us fully human, we need to relearn how to connect with mind, body, and soul. On the A.T., it took two weeks for me to feel what was happening inside of me, the layers that make me deeply human. A screen-saturated world won’t allow us to discover those places, but true adventure will invite us to connect to the deepest places inside of us and revitalize what makes us come alive.

On our devices so little of what makes us fully human shows up.

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3. People are more rewarding than pixels

Real relationships are found human to human, heart to heart, soul to soul. Life is not found in what we do or where we live. Something happens when we experience the adventurous side of life unplugged, discovering something new, exploring a rough trail, visiting a foreign terrain. On the A.T., we had more conversations about the rawness of life than we ever had before. Sharing the trail, food and shelter bonded us with fellow hikers. It did not matter if you had just come out of prison or broken up with your girlfriend. Unplugged experiences bond us more than any device ever could. That applies to our kids as well. I will never forget the teenage girls that embarked on the trail with their school instructors without devices. It was the highlight of their entire year. They might not know it or voice it, but kids today are starving for authentic experiences and adventure.

Kids today are starving for authentic experiences and adventure.


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4. New habits take time

Putting healthy boundaries around technology is one of the best gifts we can give our children. Digital breaks work. Research found that five days in a nature camp drastically improved the emotional reading of sixth graders. Tech breaks fuel the power of presence, but new tech habits take time. 

It takes a minimum of 21 days to establish a new habit. The investment is worth the time. Teenagers that spend more intentional unstructured family time with their parents are emotionally better off and less likely to get into trouble than their peers. Six hours of high quality (low tech) engaged family time a week has a fundamental impact on teenagers’ wellbeing. It may not be hiking the Appalachian Trail but a simple choice to be present at home. Frequently sitting around the dinner table marked by an open and warm atmosphere reduces depression and suicidal thoughts in kids. It even causes kids to recover faster from cyberbullying. 


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5. If we want to connect to our inner core, we have to dial down technology

In our book, The Glass Between Us, we talk about the fact that misguided tech habits are often a response to an unfulfilled human need. If we want to connect and strengthen what makes us human, we have to dial down technology and fill the time with something meaningful that gives us life. As well-known child counselor David Thomas suggests, technology use is an escape, not an effective coping mechanism. Figuring out where we are going in life starts with connecting to our values and goals in spaces of presence, and nature happens to be the best place to start.


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We returned from the trail after 30 days as a changed family. Our relationships were richer, our kids more bonded, our cravings for technology had subsided, we were more connected to our souls and spirit, and to each other. What we experienced on the trail has transformed us until this day. If I can leave you with one question it is this:

How can you fuel the lives of your kids with adventure? The impact might just last them a lifetime.

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"Parents are desperate for concepts and language like this to help their children. They would benefit so much from this program - and I think it would spur much needed conversations between parents and children.” --Jenet Erikson, parent

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