I’m going rogue this week by sharing a personal story about a trip I just took with my two Gen Zs. It’s a story about my technology obsessed family and what happens when we travel outside the US and off the grid. Over the border and into the woods, to a week without Wi-Fi we go.
I’m bedazzled and frazzled and want to escape. I want to get away from the dripping pine needles, the Elf who I swear has become Rosemary’s Baby, and the growing dust balls that dance through my house like sugar plum fairies. Everyone, especially Elf, is waiting for me to tear down Christmas and deck the halls with my whip cracking lists for 2015. I’m not sure who’s annoying me more – Boxing Day emails or my two screenagers who’ve done so much screen that their nostrils are flattened by their phones. Two more days of this and they’ll be the addicted, pasty, unhealthy Gen Zs I love to criticize.
We decide to take an “off the grid” getaway – to a place where screenagers will go bonkers: Canada. Bonkers because our current data plans don’t work in Canada: my Gen Zs won’t have their 4Gs! And neither will I, which sounds heavenly since I myself have become an addict and never did have much discipline to moderate anything.
Are we crazy? On the one hand, Canada is just 8 hours away by car, we can immerse ourselves in French culture and the skiing is said to be amazing. On the other hand, are we gluttons for punishment setting the stage for a “shit show”? In total the trip is 16 hours, four of us over 5’5″ in one hotel room for 7 nights, a language we don’t know and no reservations. We’re willing to put our sanity on the line. I refuse to tour a new country if our kids learn more about apps than maps.
We gave it a try. We had the guts to tell our kids they won’t have 4G for a week, they are going “off the grid” on this trip and that’s the deal. To deflect potential technical warfare, my husband whom we call the Director of Technology, announced he would hold a “5 minute briefing” followed by Q&A. He did, seriously.
Again, are we crazy? Maybe not because we know our kids, and they’ll deal because I’ve drilled screen moderation, balancing virtual and physical worlds, into them since they got screens. We cross the border into Canada and you’d think we were flying through the Bermuda Triangle. We entered a foggy new zone: the data plan shut down in a snap. Total freak-out. My giant kids kick, push, shake and trade phone information as if they were trading candy after Halloween.
Next, they interrogate the Director, all while driving our obnoxiously giant SUV through what feels like the Autobahn. I tell them they’re not alone because even our Toyota SUV went off the grid! Then the graveling – to borrow the Director’s phone, the only one working in Canada thanks to his international plan all while a beautiful city like Oz appears: Montreal.
Alas, a total mind shift occurs! Their squinty eyes widen and sparkle as if they’ve just seen Santa Claus. I know they are excited to be here, because they are looking up for more than 3 seconds (I counted). “So is Montreal in Canada? …”It’s so big, I thought Montreal was the size of White Plains.” “Cool, signs are in French.” “How long are we here for.” “Do people live or work here? What kind of food do they have?” Ah, wala! No screens, no distractions just pure observation and excitement.
I feel like I’m conducting a focus group as I watch my Gen Zs think and express beyond the screen. In this case, traveling “off the grid” proved that these Gen Zs ARE the creative, insightful, social, adaptable kids we marketers and researchers speculate them to be. They can be masters of the virtual world AND the physical world. Without a phone, my artistic daughter did the audio tour at the Musee des beaux arts Montreal. My high schooler who is most attached to his 4G, used a true camera to photograph his favorite Kandinsky’s. My daughter read a book in 2 days, sketched figures and trees, I read the NY Times every day cover to cover, and even the Director with his data, read a book, used maps and hid the prized possession to avoid the guilt.
We used physical maps, asked locals for directions and enjoyed connecting with real live Canadian people. Most importantly, we observed, analyzed and discussed this new world around us. “Hey where are kids our age? I see many toddlers.” We didn’t see many Gen Zs at all, maybe because Canada only has 7 million in generation Z vs. 20 million in the US. We noticed that everyone wore the same long black parka with a fur-lined hood and Canadian logo on the sleeve. Did the government give every citizen a free coat? Is this the hot brand for Canada? And everyone seemed relatively thin, maybe because the portions were smaller and diners lingered at the table. And so obvious was the lack of consumer brand logos, fewer bright colors, and no electronic billboards, especially on the subways where there was no advertising.
Crossing the border back into the US, my kids did a New Year’s countdown chanting “data, data, data” until the ball dropped – they got their data plan back. And ever since crossing the border, they’ve been fighting over phone chargers, with their heads glued to netflix and not a clue that we just drove through beautiful mountainous Vermont, Mass and CT.
I liked the trip better when we were off the grid. Going on the road and off the grid allowed us to enjoy the physical world of traveling so much more. They discover apps that were downloaded at birth – apps like observation, discovery, analysis and how to use 5 senses in the physical world. Gen Zs are masters of the virtual world, give them a chance to master the physical world and see what happens. Media suggests adults go on social cleanses and digital detoxes, really it’s our developing Generation Zs who need more balance between their virtual and physical worlds. So next time you take your Gen Zs on a trip, go “off the grid”. I dare you.