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Digital Detox Group Learning To Live Unplugged

Published on July 24, 2015 by Lora Whelan for The Quoddy Tides Newspaper

Original Article HERE

Early on a July Saturday morning a seven‑member group visiting Eastport from Silicon Valley in California as part of a "digital detox" pilot project was hard at work helping the Eastport Recreation Committee clear land for a future skateboard area and a "little tots" park next to the tennis courts on Old County Road. It was hard work with trees and well-established scrub coming down and red ants in abundance.       

By 10 a.m. the group was in full swing, using chainsaws, pruning saws, clippers and more, with heaps of felled brush and tree limbs piling higher and higher. Eastport city councillor and committee liaison Mike Cummings was on hand, as well as committee chair and police officer Thomas Fredette. Along with the whining of chainsaws and the gas‑run pruning saw was the sound of heavy equipment working in the background. Community member Tim Tiess and public works employee Brian Baron, both there on their own time, were the professionals on hand with the experience to use the city‑loaned dump truck and tractor.       

It was a long day of hard work, but on Sunday morning the digital detox pilot project group was up and about making their breakfast at the farmhouse on the Rossport compound in Quoddy Village. As they gathered around the kitchen table to discuss their experiences half‑way through their two weeks in Eastport, the cozy aroma of pancakes wafted in and out of the room.      

"It was awesome," says Royce, a high school senior, of Saturday's work with the island city's community's members. They worked hard, but they also worked in a way that is different for youth and adults heavily used to the presence of digital devices as the tool of choice for everything from leisure activities, such as "chatting" with friends, to navigating a map. They worked with their hands and they worked and talked alongside others. They were even lectured by two 10‑year‑olds, who set them straight about the importance of face‑to‑face friendships.       

Caitlin Hoffman, president of All Minds Matter, a company based in Silicon Valley that provides academic coaching, academic intervention and educational services, explains that the pilot project is about being unplugged from digital devices, having unstructured "down" time and partnering with the local community on projects such as the scrub clearing. She chose Eastport because 36 years ago she spent two years of her adolescence in Pembroke and never forgot the wild beauty of the landscape and the warmth of the people. "It's been a dream of mine for decades to come back."       

The digital detox retreat concept lent itself well to exploring the possibilities Downeast. She came out to visit Rossport, was introduced to the island by Ross Furman, serendipitously met Cummings and heard about the park project. It clicked. A few months later the group of seven -- two high school students, one recent high school graduate on her way to college, Hoffman and her partner and two All Minds Matter employees -- gathered at Rossport's barn and placed all their digital equipment into an old metal washtub that Furman passed around. "We had a ceremonial fireside chat," he relates. "I went and hid it," he says of the washtub, just in case anyone got desperate.      

Despite not knowing what to expect, and being a bit skeptical, "after two days I realized that I don't need them," Royce says of his phone, iPad, iPods and more. David adds that back at home his phone is his "default thing. I was worried about what to do." Would it be a 14‑day experience of misery? "I'm not missing my phone at all." Music‑fan Camille was pleasantly surprised to discover the WSHD radio station at Shead High School and its eclectic and much welcome selection of music. In fact, they were so blown away by the radio station that they set up a visit.      

The experience of being without the constant presence of digital technology to fall back on for entertainment, social interactions, work, research and mapping has been an eye‑opener, and not just for the young adults. Hoffman explains that they took a road trip over to Campobello Island. She was concerned about how to find their way without the guidance or directions of technology. "We did just fine," she says. Signs, visitor center maps, people with suggestions and advice have come to the rescue more than once. It took them two days to find the Pembroke swimming hole. "It's not something you could Google," says David with a grin. But once they were there and ready to cool off from the spell of hot weather, locals came to their help without their knowing to ask for it. Locals know of the danger present at the swimming hole and the tragic deaths that have occurred there in the past. When Camille was checking out the rope swing, "a man came running over saying 'no, no, no,'" because of the danger involved. "He showed me what to do," she says.      

"I like it," Royce says of being unplugged. "It's more social. We're actually talking to each other." David adds, "It's funny, the second day Ross took us to downtown Eastport and we were walking and Ross knew everybody. It's insane. At home you don't have the time to know everyone." He adds, "It builds a good sense of community, an extended family. It's kind of neat." Camille jumps in. She comes from a large family, and back home she might know one in 100 people. "Here everybody knows everybody. At home there are too many people to think about knowing everyone."     

Adrienne and Andrew, who work as academic coaches with All Minds Matter, have also gained from the experience, particularly in interacting in different ways with the young adults who have been their students. Andrew says, "Seeing Royce and David so excited, seeing smiles on their faces is so great." While Andrew and Adrienne might work with their students four to six hours after an eight‑hour school day, Andrew says, "It's really helped us see our students in a new way." Adrienne agrees and also found that she was more dependent on her own phone that she had realized. "I was surprised at how attached I was."       

As for the impact of the digital disconnection, they've all given it some thought. While it's not practical to give all those tools up, Camille says, "Technology isn't the enemy, but how we use it." She adds, "I don't like how it's controlling our lives, but harnessing technology to help others -- it's a powerful learning tool." David says, "It's practical here not to use cell phones as much, but back at home the key is moderation." Hoffman will be deliberately turning off her phone on Fridays and leaving it behind at work. "Friday and Saturday I need to unplug." Royce adds, "Technology is pretty awesome, but I need to know when to use it or not to use it."       

Using technology as a resource is important, but they've all come away with an understanding or renewed appreciation of all the other resources out there and of their importance, such as the local knowledge about safe practices at the Pembroke swimming hole, the two 10‑year‑olds with their wisdom about the nature of friendships and the importance of self‑reliance when navigating unknown roads.

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