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Social Experiment: Family Gives Up Electronics For 48 Hours

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - Like your phone going off in the middle of the night, these statistics are alarming. On average, Americans check their phones 150 times per day.

Looking at it differently, that equates to reaching for your phone every six minutes while you are awake. It adds up to about five hours a day on the phone, and more often than not, we aren't even making calls.

We use them to play games, surf the internet, check Facebook or Twitter. It is where we keep our calendar and mobile banking apps.

But, what if our phones went away?

"It might be more difficult for me than most because I rely on my phone for a lot," said Grant Gilliland, a North Hills father of three.

His son, Jack, could only imagine how many messages he would miss.

"I will probably have a couple thousand texts," he said.

So, we asked the Gilliland family to go off the grid. Give up the electronics. Unplug for 48 hours -- from 5 p.m. Friday until 5 p.m. Sunday.

Twelve-year-old daughter Kate groaned, "It's like the funeral of fun."

But, it wasn't just their phones. They handed in their iPods, iPads, Kindles and laptops too.

"There's not a room we don't have electronics," said mother, Mary Ann Gilliland. "This is going to be quite an experiment."

KDKA-TV's Rick Dayton spent 99 cents at the Dollar Store to buy a clear Tupperware container, and took it with him to the Gilliland's home on a Friday evening in mid-January.

He asked them to put all the electronics in the box and they taped it shut. Then he told them about a little surprise.

We left the devices in clear sight -- taped to their kitchen counter.

As part of the experiment, we contacted Point Park University Psychology professor Dr. Bob McInerney about how attached we have become to our technical devices.

"I think it changes us in ways we are kind of surprised. Technology shapes our humanity much more than we tend to recognize," he said.

He said that with technology's gains, there is almost always a loss and he expected that would be the case for the Gilliland family, too.

Before we left Friday night, we installed a GoPro camera in the family's living room. We asked all five family members to record their thoughts throughout the weekend on our camera to provide a video journal of what they experienced.

Grant was first to check in -- a little after 9 p.m.

"Four hours in. Not too bad. The only thing is we went out. We couldn't keep in touch with our kids," Grant said.

Before bed on Friday, 12-year-old Kate plopped down on the couch.

"I think it will be harder tomorrow because it will be for a whole day," she said.

Twenty-four hours after the experiment started, we went back to the Gilliland's home. Already, the kids had picked up on some significant changes.

"He was a little more talkative," said Kate of her older brother. "I saw his face more."

Jack said he saw more of his sisters Saturday morning.

"Usually, when they have their electronics, they go hide up in their room with them, but now they were sitting down here more normal," he said.

The youngest daughter, Scout, said she noticed a difference Saturday afternoon at her basketball game.

"I got more attention from my mom and dad because they weren't checking their phones," she said.

All three observations were exactly as Dr. McInerney expected.

"When we are less engaged in the cell phone, we make more eye contact, I think that is for sure," McInerney said. "Eye contact means intimacy."

Yet, there were some anxious moments Saturday afternoon for the family without their phones.

Mary Ann and Grant agreed to meet somewhere Saturday afternoon. When Mary Ann and son Jack were running late, she stopped at a Giant Eagle. She told Jack she was going to run inside to use the phone at the Customer Service Desk.

"I have a 13-year-old in the back seat who said, 'You can't call dad. He doesn't have his phone.' That's when I lost it a little bit and said 'Why are we doing this?'" she said.

Grant -- who got his first cell phone in 1989 -- had an interesting observation.

"It was strange to have to come home to get the use a telephone," he said.

There was another noticeable change. The Gilliland's house phone got a workout. They also realized they didn't have a phone book and all their contacts were locked up in their phones inside a plastic box.

They were able to remember very few of those numbers.

Fast-forward another 24 hours. We returned to the house on Sunday at 5 p.m. The experiment had come to a close and it was time to pass the devices out to the anxious family. We asked Scout to go first.

However, when Dayton handed her the iPod she uses all the time she said, "I don't know how to turn it on."

Perhaps that's because it is so rare that it is turned off. With a little help, we got her iPod turned on and she was back in business.

Next came Jack.

When his phone came on, it lit up like a Christmas tree. He immediately started swiping, punching scrolling and surfing to get caught up from what he missed.

He'd missed 292 texts and 12 messages on Snapchat.

Dayton asked, "Jack, you thought it was going to be hard. Was it harder than what you thought?"

With his head down, eyes focused on the tiny iPhone screen he eventually said, "Yep."

Seconds later, Dayton followed with another question.

"Are you lost already in your phone?"

Two seconds later came a muttered, "Yes." Dr. McInerney was 100 percent correct. The intimacy was gone. There was no eye contact.

When we talked with the professor about our observations, he replied, "One of the losses is reliance, which I think your social experiment began to discover, and one of the more fascinating things it showed -- was a loss of intimacy."

As the Gilliland parents looked back at their 48 hours off the grid, they say they learned a hard lesson.

"I think all parents are guilty of -- to the kids -- give me your electronics and then they didn't give theirs up," said Grant. "I would say if you are going to do it, at least go through the pain with them."

Mary Ann said she didn't think it was going to be hard to quit cold turkey, but she was wrong. She was surprised how hard it was, but not because she couldn't call or text.

"My calendar is pretty much my go-to of where I am every hour on the hour. That was really hard for me," she said.

But, they agreed it taught them a lot about how reliant we have become.

"I think we are," Mary Ann paused, "I don't want to say addicted, but it is just part of the way the world, the way our world is rolling right now."

Grant contends their other families can benefit from it, but would make one change to what we did for our 48-hour experiment. He says give the phones to a neighbor instead of leaving them at home on the counter because it was a real temptation for the kids to break into the box.

"They were pretty good about it, but there were times when they said, 'I'm getting it. I'm getting my phone back right now. I'm going to get it.' But, I had to tell them, 'Don't do it. We've got until five. Hold tight."

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