A year ago, Tony Krieg, 43, witnessed a scene in a restaurant that changed his retirement plans.
He watched as parents brought their young son to a Texas Roadhouse restaurant for a birthday party. The parents steered the boy, who looked to be about 9 years old, by guiding him from the back of his head while he stared down at his iPad.
"Not once did that little boy look up" through the entire party, he said. After that encounter, Krieg sold the St. Louis-area electronics-recycling business he had run for 18 years and purchased his dream property: a 167-acre farm in Dittmer, Missouri.
He's decided to use that farm to invite families to spend a day away from their devices and learn a little bit about life away from constant connectivity.
"The goal is to get kids off electronics and show them there is a life outside of that, especially in the outdoors," he said. There will be fishing, hiking, arrowhead hunting and creek exploring, along with short presentations on topics like recycling, composting and gardening.
Calling the effort Missouri Kids Unplugged, Krieg has filed it as a nonprofit, set up a website (missourikidsunplugged.zone) and planned a fundraiser for March to cover some expenses. Last year, he estimates spending between $12,000 to $15,000 out of pocket so that 400 people could visit and take part in activities at the farm. He also provided food and some entertainment. He and his family want to try to offer the visits for free to thousands of children, including inner-city kids who may never have been to a farm before.
He and his wife have four children, ages 16 to 23, and they have always enforced some rules around technology use.
"We're not talking about living off the grid," he said. "We're talking about common sense boundaries. Let's have families again."
Ronald Dahl, professor of community health and human development at the University of California, Berkeley, spoke recently about adolescent brain development at a seminar for education writers. I asked him about the long-term impact of screen-saturated childhoods on teenage brains.
The jury is still out on what those impacts will be, he said. But there are two areas in which experts agree that a high-volume tech habit has negative effects: sleep and attention span. Adolescents get less quality sleep and have shorter attention spans when they spend a lot of time on digital devices. Recent studies suggest adults suffer the same consequences.
Some adults will recognize signs of their own dependence and take social media vacations; I've seen people announce such breaks on Facebook and Twitter. I've even tried this myself.
I wrote about a Facebook fast in 2010. After officially announcing my big breakup, our separation lasted less than a week.
Lately, I've been craving a few days in a cabin deep in the woods, cut off from Wi-Fi, cellphone towers and television. We are social creatures built for connection, but we also need a periodic disconnect. We need a pause to honestly evaluate how much time we spend truly disconnected from a device.
Perhaps a better approach to a short-term detox is to integrate regular downtime and make it part of a family's routine. Think beyond just taking a break from technology during meal times. Is it possible to do screen-free Sundays, where a block of time -- anywhere from four to eight hours -- is set aside? It would take some coordination to find hours that work for everyone. That's also key.
Too many family tech-detox plans start as a group effort, only to see the parents break down first, using "work" as an ever-present hall pass. Change has to be modeled from the top down.
My own family will be trying a digital detox soon. Rather than making this a punitive exercise, I want my kids to identify what benefits they each stand to gain: better sleep, more focused attention, more face-to-face activities.
The larger goal is about becoming more mindful of our tech use and media consumption, and building in regular breaks.
I agree with Krieg's observation that something valuable is lost unless we make an active effort to disengage with things and engage with one another.
He talked about the students who visited his property last year who had never in their lives walked on gravel in a creek. Some had never cooked a hot dog over an open fire or made a s'more.
"It's ironic that I owned an electronics recycling business," he said.
Proving that what goes around, comes around.