Last Updated on June 19, 2023 by Nicole
My 16 year old son has his ear phones in again. I ask him a question and he doesn’t even look up from his phone. He’s listening to music and can’t hear me. I sigh loudly, get up from my comfortable chair, and head on over to talk to him. A couple taps later, he looks up, takes one ear bud out and says, “What?” I repeat myself, “Let’s go play cards before our dinner reservation.” He says, “Nooooo…my friends have just gone online. I want to talk with them.” Then, seconds later, the ear bud is back in and I am ignored.
The Impact of Social Media on a Family Holiday
It used to be that you would go on a family holiday with your husband and children to escape your everyday life. Even if you were happy with life back home, it was a treat to leave it all behind. Daily life, filled with school, homework, extracurricular activities, sport tournaments, plus your own work and obligations, can be crazy busy. Who wouldn’t trade that all in for some sun, beach, an exciting adventure or a new culture to discover somewhere in the world? Especially, when you get to do that with the people you love the most – your family.
But, reality steps in. With mobile phones, wifi and social media, your family vacation is no longer yours. You are, in fact, sharing your precious time with your children with their phones, their preferred online streaming and social media apps, and their friends. It seems like your relationship with your teenager suffers the most. Add in FaceTime or something similar, and sometimes it feels like your family vacation has grown to include 3 or 4 of your kids’ buddies that you were absolutely sure you left behind.
Welcome to travel with teenagers!
The Good Old Days
I have four children who are now 20, 16, 14 and 13 years old. We have been travelling the world together since they were babies. I would say that travelling with my children has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life. My blog captures some of these travels, but not all, as it is only a year old.
When the kids were younger, controlling access to electronic devices was pretty easy. Maybe bring one for the plane? Maybe not. Allow some TV time at the end of the day? May not. We certainly didn’t have to navigate the near constant access today’s teenagers have to social media, their friends and their life back home. A family holiday was once truly about being in the moment, with your family, finding time and ways to reconnect with each other without other distractions.
So, is that it? Do you give up and accept your teenager’s seemingly never ending addiction to electronics and social media? No way! Over the years, I have found certain strategies that have worked to keep our family holidays truly about family and our experiences at our destinations. With four children and multiple family holidays, these have been crafted over time. They have worked for all of my children, notwithstanding their gender, age or level of obsession with their phone, social media and their friends. I hope they work for you too!
1. Do Not Purchase a Travel Plan for Your Kids’ Phones
We are from Canada and most phone/data plans only include travel within Canada. If you want to talk, text or have data once you leave the country, you have to pay extra. I never purchase travel plans for the kids or allow any additional fees to be incurred through the use of their phones in a foreign country. Instead, they must turn off their cellular data or leave “airplane mode” on constantly to prevent any roaming or text charges. As a result, the only time my children can connect to social media or their friends at home is when free wifi is available.
2. Choose Destinations that have Limited Wifi
I try to pick destinations where wifi may be difficult to get.
I prefer travelling to developing countries and exploring more isolated parts of the world. Usually, wifi is limited in these places. For example, we went to Nuqui Choco in Colombia a few months back. We stayed in a lodge where wifi was only offered in the evenings from 6:00 pm – 9:00 pm, and only in the dining room (A 14 day Colombia Itinerary: A Country of Contrasts). On another trip, we were on a small boat in the Galapagos Islands where no wifi was offered at all until we went into towns that offered it (Galapagos Islands: Five Days In Paradise).
It isn’t necessary to go to the far reaches of the planet to find destinations without wifi. For example, most major cruise ships that cruise in Europe and the Caribbean do not offer free wifi. Camping is normally wifi free and there are still lots of hotels in North America and Europe that charge extra for wifi.
We just returned from an all inclusive resort in Mexico where there was free wifi not only in the hotel, but also by the pool and on the beach. This was the worst! My kids could barely tear themselves away from their phones and social media all day long.
3. Choose Activities that do not have Wifi or are incompatible with Electronics
Generally as a family, we lose interest hanging around the pool or sun bathing on a beach. We prefer to be busy, active and engaged with the local surroundings. Accordingly, I usually look for excursions that take us off the beaten path, have an element of adventure, or take us into remote areas. These type of excursions rarely offer wifi or there is a risk of losing or damaging your phone if you bring it.
For example, when we were in Combodia, we went ATVing in the countryside (Uncovering Siem Reap’s Secrets: A Cambodian Adventure). There wasn’t any wifi and it would have been dangerous using a phone. In Mexico, we chartered a boat and went snorkelling and fishing in the Caribbean Sea. There wasn’t any wifi and all electronics were kept away from the water. In India, we went hiking in the hills with a guide with no access to wifi.
4. Choose Activities that Engage Your Child and Leave them Uninterested in Social Media
If your child is interested or having fun by what is going on, they won’t want to go on their phones. However, if they are bored, they will. No matter how gorgeous a resort is, if everyday is about hanging out by the pool or on the beach, your teenager will get bored.
When you are planning your family vacation, try to find activities that you know will interest your child and keep them in the moment. This past summer, we tried the Olympic bobsleigh run in Whistler in a modified sled (it had wheels). It was so interesting and exciting, no one even thought about phones or social media for hours (A Whistler Summer in Canada: Ten of My Favourite Things To Do). On our trip to Peru, we went horseback riding in the Sacred Valley (Machu Picchu With Kids: An Amazing Week in Peru). In Medellin, Colombia, we explored the street art of La Communa 13, once the most dangerous neighbourhood in one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
5. Create Rules About the Use of Their Phone and Social Media that are Reasonable.
As mentioned earlier, we just got back from an all inclusive in Mexico that had free wifi everywhere. We couldn’t avoid it until we left the resort. So, my husband and I made a rule that phones or access to social media would not be allowed during our meals together. This was the best we could do while at the resort. My kids were old enough to join activities, get drinks and snacks, and spend time in the hotel room on their own schedule and without parental supervision. However, in different circumstances, we would have set more boundaries.
Do not be afraid to set reasonable rules about access to phones and social media that preserve your family time together.
6. Be Consistent and an Example
If you make a rule, make sure your children follow through with it. Don’t turn a blind eye to a child breaking that rule. Then, expect that child to respect the rule another time.
Also, if you decide to allow the use of electronics or access to social media during certain times, then make sure you respect that rule too. Don’t change your mind. You run the risk of your children losing their respect for you and your rules.
Finally, if you make a rule, you need to abide by it as well. If you have asked your children to leave their phones alone during a family meal, then don’t pull your phone out of your pocket and check your Facebook feed or emails. Teenagers are way past the point of accepting those type of exceptions.
7. Give them Time with Their Phone or Access to Social Media
It is all very well to limit or discourage the use of electronics and social media on your family vacation. However, at some point, it is in your families’ best interests to allow your teen access to them.
As discussed earlier, on most of our trips, I try to fill our days with activities. If I know that our days will be super busy and wifi free, then I do my best to ensure that our hotel has reasonably good wifi and they have time to connect with their friends back home. This usually happens at the end of the day, either just before dinner or after dinner when everyone is back in their room relaxing.
Generally, my children know that if they are engaged and participating in our family holiday, then they will be left alone at the end of the day. If you remove all access to their social media for the whole holiday, odds are you are going to have an unhappy teenager. Ultimately, they may not wish to go on the next family vacation.
A family vacation is a time to leave the challenges and busy schedule at home and reconnect as a family. This becomes difficult if your teenager is glued to their phone and sending text messages all day to their friends with indecipherable teen emoji meanings, or connecting with them through their various social media apps.
Accordingly, when you are planning a family vacation with teens, it is important to consider the impact that electronics and social media can have. If you want to minimize their impact, then a conscious effort needs to be made to create a family holiday that limits access. The right combination of restrictions and access will help you have a successful family vacation for both yourself and your teenagers.
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