Rehoboth Beach, Del. Two hours into another day of his family’s beach vacation, Brandon Hubacher had sent 50 text messages to his friends back home.
“Chillen on the beach,” the 16-year-old messaged a buddy at 12:04 p.m., the ocean surf beckoning mere yards away.
“Luckyy,” the friend zipped back.
Unplugging could not have been further from the teenager’s mind. “I wouldn’t think about it,” he said as he eyed the ocean, a Redskins cap turned backward on his head. Only for a swim would he and his cell phone part ways, he said.
Thus is digital technology making an indelible mark on the long tradition of the American family vacation.
With the miles between home and away so easily traversed by limitless texting and by laptops that connect to Facebook and Skype, the family getaway to the beach or the lake has become just another frontier transformed by the digital age.
At the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the school-aged play Xbox Live in rental houses with friends hundreds of miles away. From Delaware beach towns, they post Facebook photos and messages. At state parks, there are iPods and Nintendo DS consoles packed into minivans along with marshmallows and fishing rods. Everywhere are parents who could not make the trip without a computer or BlackBerry.
Not everyone wants a break from the usual rhythms of family life.
“I think for the kids, it’s the best of both worlds: They can stay connected and still be on vacation,” says mom Nancy Hubacher, 47, of Fairfax Station, Va., who was herself sending work e-mail from a beach chair this week, as her husband chatted on his phone.
Still, some families find technology at odds with vacation — that idealized time of shared activities and bonding — and some have banned certain devices outright.
“It can be a source of tension,” says Scott Campbell, a new-media scholar at the University of Michigan. “As a parent, you spend money and time to get away from all of the things you’re normally embedded in, and your kids aren’t getting away from them.”
But many parents are themselves unable to unplug, he said. “The parents are oftentimes guilty of not truly being able to get away because of their compulsion to use the technology.”
The digital age has left many families looking for the right balance.
The Hoppmans, of Rockville, Md., have strict limits on electronics during the school year, but summers come with more freedom. Nicole Hoppman, 43, says her two teenage sons spend a lot of time on Facebook and her 11-year-old likes video games. But when the family set out for Bethany Beach, Del., in mid-June, they forgot their laptop at home.
For four days, they did not go online.
The family took walks in the mornings and evenings. They watched the World Cup together. There was a trip out for breakfast, another for ice cream. They talked more than they might have.
With her teenage sons in particular, Hoppman said, “I think they definitely would not have done any of that if they could have been on Facebook.”