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Living with screens

Tablets, iPhones, and laptops invade the family vacation

John Lawson and Ethan Kelleher played with an iPad in their tent at Bay View Campground in Bourne.

Bill Greene/globe staff

John Lawson and Ethan Kelleher played with an iPad in their tent at Bay View Campground in Bourne.

BAY VIEW CAMPGROUND, Bourne — Chris Szymczuk and his son Tommy were grilling bread for BLTs outside their camper, and with Tommy’s XBox 360 and cellphone nowhere in sight, the Bridgewater father pronounced himself happy.

“It’s a little bit of heaven,” Szymczuk said.

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That is how he sees technology-free vacation time together. Tommy, 13, enjoys undiluted family time, too, but only up to a point. “Half the time we’re doing nothing,” he said, recalling evenings spent around a campfire. “That’s when I text or play some Xbox.”

Father and son smiled at each other under the bright July sun. “I learn to deal with it,” said Szymczuk, who works for a wine and liquor distributor. “It is what it is,” Tommy replied.

Technology, having transformed the rest of life, is going after the family vacation. Parents and kids are equally guilty of clinging to their mobile devices, though for anyone who has learned about the night sky from an app — or answered a work e-mail from the beach — technology can enhance a vacation, or make it possible for some adults to get away at all. But the benefits of vacationing as a family may be lessened if each person spends the holiday physically present but mentally elsewhere.

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How much of an impact is technology having? Even the age-old refrain from the back seat — “Are we there yet?” — is under fire.

“Sometimes, the kids are almost reluctant to get out of the car,” said Brad Harrington, executive director of Boston College’s Center for Work & Family. You reach your destination, but instead of hopping out, the children stay buckled in. “Just one more level,” they beg, thumbs working their game players, or, “Let me finish this episode.”

“There are times in the journey where you’d like them to unplug and interact,” Harrington joked, “even if it’s to fight.”

Statistics do not exist on the percentage of teenagers who go an entire week on the Cape texting so furiously they do not even realize they are away, or the number of hours toddlers spend pleading with parents to stop checking e-mail and help with the sand castle.

But mobile devices have become so much a part of the family vacation that campground owners say offering Wi-Fi service is almost a must — and some guests prefer a spot with a strong signal to one with a view of the trees. Front-desk clerks report that families arrive with so many devices that hotels have had to add power strips to rooms. And some vacationers admit they are more interested in photographing the moment for Facebook than being in the moment.

The New Yorker recently summed up the new vacation style with a cover illustration showing a family on a sunny beach — all communing with their mobile devices as they pose for a photo. The title: “Capturing Memories.”

“You can’t sit by the fire now without thinking you might be getting a text,” said Kenny Barrus, a 53-year-old advertising contractor from Plymouth. He had installed a removable 22-inch TV screen on the exterior of his camper, the better to enjoy the great outdoors with his wife, Donna. “We like to watch ‘Big Brother’ and the news and talk,” he said.

Who needs to spend tech-free time with family on vacation, anyway? Don’t we live with these people all year long?

Yes, but vacation time is important for families, said Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “They give you shared experiences that become part of a family’s history.”

The less time a family spends interacting, Whitbourne warned, the less members have in common, and the less they have to talk about with each other in the future. And the clock is ticking.

“Kids grow up fast,” she said. “If you don’t capture those times together, when you’re older you’ll look back and think, why didn’t I take advantage? You’ll forget all those tweets, but it’s the silly, goofy things you do together” that will have lasting importance.

Ideally, the memories created are not of enormous family fights over screen time, she added, suggesting that rather than ban Internet devices outright, families agree ahead of time on parameters.

“It’s not the technology that ruins [vacations],” she explained, “but the resentment that’s caused.”

In the right dose, of course, technology can be a nice addition to a vacation. There is the pleasure of ganging up on the annoying GPS voice barking out driving directions. It’s fun to huddle around a laptop and watch a movie, and reassuring to be able to Google “what does poison ivy look like?” And in this day and age, who could possibly find the best fried clams within 5 miles without a smartphone and Yelp?

Despite the near-constant presence of screens in our lives, technology’s reach continues to grow. Last year, for the first time ever, the number of connected devices with wireless subscriptions outnumbered the US population, according to CTIA, a Washington, D.C.-based wireless-industry trade association.

Now, those 327.6 million tablets and phones are changing the definition of what it means to be “good” on vacation. In the past: holding yourself to one double-scoop of ice cream a day. In 2012: staying off the BlackBerry.

Arguing about screen time has become a staple of the family vacation. When Mary Meli told her tween he could not spend forever on his laptop during an upcoming trip to Maine, he quickly got defensive. “You’re ruining my life,” Jack, then 12, responded.

But as many a parent knows, kids are not the only ones who suffer when technology is limited. “What have I done to myself?” Meli worried after laying down the law. Jack’s younger sister, Claire, 11, could relate. “Sometimes I wish he was on his laptop,” she said. “He likes to torment people.”

But pity the plugged-in. As David Greenfield, an Internet addiction expert, explained, wireless devices are like mobile slot machines, delivering hits of dopamine that, admittedly, family members don’t always give us.

Bill Greene/globe staff

Kenny and Donna Barrus of Plymouth watched television during dinner at Bayview Campground in Bourne. Owners of campgrounds say offering Wi-Fi service is almost a must — and some guests prefer a strong signal to a good view.

“Real life doesn’t seem as 3-D or stimulating as technology can make it,” Greenfield said. “Staring at a sunset isn’t like watching a funny YouTube video.”

For kids and adults who spend the majority of their nonvacation time online, quitting cold turkey isn’t always easy. Like muscles, the skills it takes to enjoy nature or converse face to face with people can atrophy, said Greenfield, director of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, in West Hartford, Conn. The good news, he added, is that if you spend a week without technology you start to “re-experience real-time living.” The bad news: one week is the length of many vacations.

Some more bad news: the rocky economy. Many workers are so concerned about keeping their jobs that they don’t even take time off. A study by research firm Harris Interactive found that 57 percent of Americans ended 2011 with unused vacation time. Those who vacation often feel the need to stay connected.

“I’ve been on the phone [working] while I was at Disney,” said Carole McKeon, a real estate broker from Foxborough. She was relaxing, if only for a moment, with her family at Old Silver Beach, in North Falmouth, and explaining that when work calls you’ve got to grab the opportunity.

“It brings a lot of stress,” she said.

As McKeon talked about her plugged-in vacation style, it was obvious that the torch — or, in this case, the phone — had been passed to a new generation. Her son Ryan, 23, of Foxborough, was searching the beach for an area with a strong signal. He was oblivious to the sound of the lapping waves and somewhat unhappy that the cloud-free sky was making it hard to see his phone’s screen.

“They should make an iVisor,” he said, cupping his hand over the device.

Ryan wanted to hang out with his family and girlfriend, but he was job hunting. “Especially in this day and age where it’s tough to get a job out of college,” you have to be immediately responsive, he said. “I am aware that I am on a beach, but my mind is in my e-mail.”

Bill Greene/globe staff

Mary MacDougall, a seventh-grade math teacher and mother of two from East Taunton, checked her iPhone. She underestimated the amount of technology her family had packed.

Back at the Bay View Campground, Mary MacDougall, a seventh-grade math teacher and mother of two from East Taunton, was chatting with a pal outside her camper. She had her copy of “Fifty Shades Darker” and her iPhone — two staples of summer vacation in 2012 — within close reach.

Like someone in denial about how much money they spend on vacation, MacDougall underestimated the amount of technology she had packed. “We have a laptop and two ­iPhones,” she said. Then she amended that. “And an iPod Touch.” She paused. “Do DSes count?” she asked, referring to hand-held gaming devices. Final tally for the family of four? Two DSes, two iPhones, one ­iPod Touch, and one laptop.

All that technology has made vacation less relaxing, she said, and there have been battles with Colin, 9, about disconnecting. But there is a plus. One morning, Colin was up and dressed with no nagging.

His inspiration: The stronger Wi-Fi signal outside the camper. “He needed it to load Angry Birds Space on his iPod Touch,” MacDougall said.

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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