When Hurricane Sandy knocked out power, people had trouble coping with living life offline


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Blank screens. Cell phones on the fritz. Wii games sitting dormant in darkened rec rooms. For a swath of teenagers and preteens on the East Coast, the power failures that followed Hurricane Sandy last month represented the first time in their young lives that they were totally off the grid, without the ability to text, play Minecraft, video-chat, check Facebook or send updates to Twitter.

If they wanted to talk to a friend, they had to do it in person. If their first post-storm instincts were to check a weather app, they resigned themselves to battery-run radios.

As the full scope of the storm's damage became obvious, it was clear these inconveniences were hardly grave. And because most children, and adults, eventually found some kind of connection via an unaffected neighbor (or Starbucks), the withdrawal was often more of a tech diet than a total fast.

But the storm provided a rare glimpse of a life lived offline. It drove some children crazy, while others managed to embrace the experience of a digital slowdown. It also produced some unexpected ammunition for parents already eager to curb the digital obsessions of their children.

Will tough tech curbs work?

Early this year, when Michelle Obama revealed rather draconian rules about technology for her daughters (no TV, cell phones or computers during the week except for homework), Pam Abel Davis of South Orange, N.J., used the news to threaten her tech-addled children with Obama-esque regulations. "My son in first grade signed a pledge for 'TV turnoff' during the week to win a gold medal," said Ms. Davis, a senior program officer at the Robin Hood Foundation. "But it was too much. He said, 'Mom, let's just go for the silver.' "

The storm hit Ms. Davis' neighborhood hard but spared her home, which became a charging station for friends of her daughter, Lucy Reynal, 13. Then last Sunday, electricity was shut off while fallen trees were cleared from the road, and within minutes the house emptied out, no longer useful to the teenage power vultures.

"Lucy almost had a heart attack when the Wi-Fi went down until she saw pictures of the devastation all around us," Ms. Davis said. "I had just bought a hand-cranked phone charger, thinking it would be a kitschy Hanukkah gift. We were winding it ferociously, sweating and running out of breath."

Hegemony over the car adapter that provided precious power resembled a scene from "Lord of the Flies," according to Gail Horwood of Scarsdale, N.Y., an executive at a consumer health care company. Bridget, 15, and Lila, 11, unearthed every ancient defunct flip phone in the family's past and tried to arrange sleepovers where they could recharge. There was a throwback moment: Lila had to study for a test of state capitals, so as the lights were flickering just before the blackout, she found a childhood jigsaw puzzle of the United States. But any resourceful return to old-school methods were not expected to last.

"Not a chance," Ms. Horwood said. "It's a digital world, and they live in it."

The Zanders of South Salem, N.Y., experienced a blackout last year, "so we're getting good at the 1800s in our house," said Lauren Handel Zander, who runs an executive life-coaching company. Her three children "live for Mommy's iPad," she said, likening the first days of the blackout to rehab. "It's like coming off drugs," she said. "There's a 48-hour withdrawal until they're not asking about the TV every other minute."

The Zander children did enjoy the unusual undivided attention of a working mom. "Mommy got parked," Ms. Zander said ruefully. "I'm not as 'on' if my kid is attached to one of those devices. I played Clue. I haven't played Clue in a very long time. We got to hang out more, which was an entire family adjustment, but it's a good problem to have."

Among the parents who spoke with pride about newfound family time when their children were forced offline, there were honest admissions about the joy-kill of too much bonding. One 10-year-old boy in lower Manhattan sweetly told his mother, "This gives us a chance to talk." After three hours of "and that's why they need to ditch Sanchez and make Tebow the starter," she was silently pleading for someone to turn the power on.

"For the first three days, I was full of maternal pride," said Marjorie Ingall, a writer in the East Village. " 'Look at my children: reading by candlelight, cutting out paper dolls, engaged in such brilliant imaginative play. We are so 'Little House on the Prairie.' Then Day 3 hit and the charm of screenless togetherness wore off. I was genuinely concerned that we were all going to kill each other."

By the time the family made their way to a relative's fully powered home, one of the children "had cracked like an egg, spending three hours glued to the TV and ignoring all humanity," Ms. Ingall said. "My prediction: It'll be a week to 10 days before we're back to all our zoned-out-and-beeping habits."

William Powers would advise otherwise. "One of greatest skills you can teach a child is: You don't have to be hooked up to any machine to get through life," said Mr. Powers, the author of "Hamlet's BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age."

"There's an aspect of originality that comes from autonomy and self-sufficiency," he said. "Some of the best thoughts and contributions come from detaching. That's hard when you have those other digital voices going all the time."

For many years, Mr. Powers and his family have gone off the grid for part or all of every weekend. "When you do it that way, it becomes a kind of family adventure, rather than 'We got slammed by this storm,'" he said. "The circumstances that brought the recent downtime about are unfortunate, but there's a way in which it gives people a view of this other space that we never spend time in any more. My son, who's a talented saxophonist, attributes his budding music life to that time on weekends when he can't be on Facebook or Twitter."

Attached to digital devices

Spencer Staats, 14, took time away from his beloved iPod touch and Mac to document his Chelsea neighborhood's flooded art galleries with a vintage camera. "He'd had the forethought to pick up film," said his father, Michael Staats, a painter and restaurant designer. "But when he went back to school, he was texting me with 'You gotta let me know when the power's back on.' "

Pam Frederick normally limits screen time ("and anything plugged in is screen time") for her three children, ages 12, 10, and 6. But the family didn't even make it 24 hours without power, decamping to Vermont from their TriBeCa home.

"The problem I see us bumping against is how attached we adults are to our own digital devices," said Ms. Frederick, who teaches part-time at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. "You have to check yourself if you're going to lay down the law for your kids."

On the other end of the spectrum, the "rabidly anti-digital" Kolvenbach family didn't find storm circumstances radically different. "I'm a foamer at the mouth," said Roanne Kolvenbach, an artist in TriBeCa. "We don't even have a TV. Our kids aren't allowed digital anything on school nights, and they can play with that stuff for only two hours on the weekends."

The genesis of her policy was her own vulnerability to the siren call of media. "I went through periods when I would gorge on TV until 2 or 3 in the morning and feel dirty afterward," she said. "I was watching all kinds of things, old episodes of 'McMillan & Wife.' It got a little ugly."

During the power failure, Baker, 10, and Hollis, 8, became a little bored and antsy but otherwise weathered the storm without complaint. "It's hard to know if they would have fared just as well were we not so militant," Ms. Kolvenbach said. "And it's possible that our hard-line stance will turn our kids into complete junkies." But she maintains that all of us -- adults and children -- are overindulging in our devices, devoting ourselves to the trivial. "If you're going to solve world hunger," Ms. Kolvenbach said, "then get an iPhone. Otherwise ..."

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