Tiffany Shlain (Photo/Lauri Levenfeld)
Tiffany Shlain (Photo/Lauri Levenfeld)

Can’t break free from your devices? ‘24/6’ offers guide for healthier living

Unplugging builds character, helps us reflect on our lives and allows us to better connect with others.

Huh?

Mill Valley filmmaker Tiffany Shlain can explain. “Early on, I was gung-ho” about the internet, says the 49-year-old. Indeed, she founded the Webby Awards (for websites), co-founded the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, and is the executive director of Let It Ripple, a nonprofit that harnesses media and technology to engage people in conversation and action on complicated topics.

So much information right at our fingertips!

But it’s gotten out of control, Shlain warns. We’re addicted, distracted, overloaded.

“Now I feel: Whoa, it’s too much.”

That’s why she has written “24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week,” a book about her and husband Ken Goldberg’s tech journey — from unplugging their electronic devices one day (under the auspices of a program run by Jewish nonprofit Reboot) to her family’s 24-hour “Technology Shabbat” every week for the last 10 years.

Cover of "24/6" by Tiffany ShlainShlain, Goldberg and daughters Odessa, 16, and Blooma, 10, have created a deeply meaningful ritual that begins with baking challah and having Friday-night dinner at home with friends, followed by quiet time for journaling and family time fun on Saturday. “We do feel that it’s our favorite [time] of the week,” Shlain says.

To be released on Tuesday, Sept. 24, “24/6” will jumpstart Let It Ripple’s sixth annual Character Day on Sept. 27-28. Character Day, which has more than 50 organizations on board, last year reached more than 4 million people worldwide in schools, companies, congregations and homes, according to Let It Ripple’s website.

The event’s focus, the website says, is “on the relationship between character and technology,” with an added aim this year, Shlain says, of growing a global no-tech Shabbat movement.

“We have, as Jews, this incredible gift right in front of us — Shabbat — that is thousands of years old,” says Shlain, a member of two San Francisco congregations, Emanu-El and The Kitchen. Paraphrasing 20th-century philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, she says, “It’s creating a temple in time. We really need to create sacred spaces.”

But one needn’t be Jewish to observe an unplugged Shabbat.

We have, as Jews, this incredible gift right in front of us — Shabbat — that is thousands of years old.

“It can work for anyone, from any background or belief, whether single, with a partner, or with kids,” Shlain writes in her book. “As concerns about the effects of excessive tech use on our individual well-being, our relationships, and our democracy come to a head, it’s never felt more urgent to share this idea.”

We are on information overload, she says. “We have to have a day where we’re not influenced by every single other thing. We need to reclaim that space for ourselves, for our kids.”

Her book gives not only a personal account of the benefits she and her family have derived from “pulling the plug” on Shabbat, but offers a societal perspective. Shlain cites a multitude of studies and brings in many outside voices — rabbis, philosophers, academics — to reinforce her contention that we really do need a day off.

She even has a how-to guide for all different ages, with ideas for “having fun without screens” for those under 5 to those 65 and older

“I am trying to make people look at how they are living,” she says. “ I think more people now realize they’re on their screens too much. I think the pendulum has swung way too far.”

Don’t get her wrong: “Tech is good,” she says. “It’s just not good 24/7.”

Some of the downsides: “I think we are distracted to the point where we can’t focus. Also, our data is being stolen. People need to understand how you give your data away for free.”

She is especially concerned about our youth, writing about the linkage between social media and depression among teens. But she is hopeful the tide may be starting to turn.

“I think you’re starting to see pushback,” she says. “There’s a wave coming, and it’s reaching out.”

Shlain notes that France has banned smartphones in school and — much closer to home —San Mateo High School has implemented a new policy halting cellphone use on campus.

She is on the advisory board member of Wait Until 8th, a national organization that empowers parents to delay giving children a smartphone until at least eighth grade. Even some tech CEOs, she says, are on board with the concept.

On the local level, Shlain is involved with ScreenSense, a Mill Valley resource for families and educators wanting to create healthy tech usage.

“I think there needs to be a major conversation between tech companies, parents, people without kids and government,” she says. “It’s a multipronged issue.”

There’s plenty individuals can do for starters. For example, leading up to Character Day is a series of weekly challenges, beginning this week with turning off your smartphone for 30 minutes in the morning, at meals and at bedtime. Each challenge will be accompanied by articles, videos and activities designed to develop awareness and practices around the connection between screen use and character development; for details, visit Characterday.org. “It’s really about bringing boundaries into our lives,” Shlain says.

Tiffany Shlain will sign books from 11 a.m.-noon Sept. 22 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., and will be in conversation with her family at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F. Details and more events at 24sixlife.com/events.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.