Modern Life

Curb digital distractions for happier holiday memories

Connect with friends and family over real experiences that are worth remembering — no filter or password required.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg — December 12, 2019

A few years ago, Lisa Fields, a writer based in New Jersey, was excited to catch up with her cousins and spend time with their son for the holidays. But over dinner, she couldn't even make eye contact with the teen.

“His eyes were glued to his phone for the entire meal,” Fields says.

Sound familiar? While smartphones are useful for connecting far-flung family members, they easily distract from in-person reunions. When tethered to their devices texting friends or posting perfectly posed photos, people miss out on meaningful conversations and opportunities to enrich their IRL relationships. It's a trend that HP research has found is stoking a widespread desire for more authentic connections, especially during the holiday season.

“The thing we love most about technology is that it connects us to others, but it doesn’t replace real life,” says Diana Graber, author of Raising Humans in a Digital World. 

Adam Alter, a New York University professor, psychologist, and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked is currently combing through thousands of hours of video footage of family dinners and other gatherings to study how digital devices are changing the way people interact. So far, he says, data show people are spending less time engaged in both group and one-on-one conversations, and they’re more socially isolated despite being with other people. “Smartphones are creating disconnection and distance,” he says.

For children, bonding with family and friends offline helps build important life skills and intergenerational holiday gatherings are the perfect time to reinforce those lessons.

What kids learn from quality family time

Packed schedules, added expenses, and big meals with less time for self-care take their toll during the holidays. Social media can add to that stress. Some people may be triggered by the deluge of happy family scenes, while others grapple with FOMO as they struggle to balance social engagements. Lisa Strohman, psychologist and founder of the Digital Citizen Academy, an organization that helps foster balance with technology, calls the pressure to curate beautiful and flawless holiday experiences: “festive faux.”

Time and energy dedicated to festive faux can be better spent connecting with the people in our lives over the holidays, she says, whether it’s relatives, co-workers, neighbors, or a chosen family made up of close friends. Those real, in-person connections are good for our happiness and well-being. 

For children, bonding with family and friends offline also helps build important life skills. When older generations connect with younger ones in the kitchen while baking Christmas cookies or frying Hanukkah latkes, they’re passing on family traditions, stories, and even skills like following directions or practicing patience.

“Kids are Snapchatting their way out of that,” Strohman says.

For younger children, early interactions with extended family members are crucial for learning to read facial expressions, understanding emotions, and developing empathy, says Graber. When kids are present, they’re able to absorb family stories told by older generations, which also often impart life lessons. HP’s research found that 61% of parents worry about how their child’s social skills will develop in a digitally focused world.  

“Holidays are a great time to learn to be human,” Graber says, “and every minute on a device is taking away from that learning.”

“We should all remember how to smell that pine tree or eat that apple pie without having to take pictures of it and show it off.”

—Lisa Strohman, psychologist and CEO of the Digital Citizen Academy

Plan to be present

Creating more meaningful holidays doesn’t mean totally banning technology. In fact, doing so could induce anxiety for some who might find solace in occasionally checking their device. Taking intentional steps, however, to limit people’s dependence on devices during get-togethers can make for happier memories. 

Graber notes that some families have started a new tradition — the device basket — in which everyone can set aside their phones for a time. Set a good example for the younger set and resist the temptation to bring your smartphone with you to the table, she advises. Leave it in another room and be present.

If anyone protests because they want to take photos, try suggesting they put their smartphone on airplane mode, says Alter. Louise Chunn, founder and CEO of the UK’s, which helps people find therapists online, recommends enabling the grayscale setting on your screen (check your Accessibility settings), which makes everything appear in black and white. “It doesn’t look as exciting and enticing that way,” she says. “Making your device less attractive to you is not a bad idea.”

Disabling push notificationa and temporarily deleting apps you check frequently from your smartphone also helps, she says. That’s what Houston copywriter Julie Beasley did last year during the holidays. She says she ended up keeping Facebook off her phone for several months and plans to do it again this year. 

“Taking the social media apps off my phone, even just for the day during Thanksgiving, makes me feel more present and in the moment,” Beasley says.  “I want to be a better example to my kids. I don’t want them remembering Mom always on the phone.”

Courtesy of HP

The 12 Days of Real Time

HP's new TV spot, part of its "Get Real" campaign, aims to counterbalance the estimated 250 hours of screen time a family of four will consume over the holidays with 250 hours worth of fun family activities.

Less holiday stress, more fun together

Strohman says creating openings for real connections requires giving people permission to disengage from their screens and engage with each other. For example, be ready with collaborative board games or activities like cornhole or cards. Or maybe have everyone share something personal, such as their most embarrassing Christmas memory or the best holiday gift they received as a kid.

During downtime after present opening or before a big family dinner, don't let people drift away into their social feeds. Set up activities or crafts the whole family can do, like making handmade, printed crafts such as paper snowflakes, dreidel garlands, or matching Santa crowns; working on a jigsaw puzzle printed from a favorite family photo; or creating snow globes out of mason jars

Strohman also puts less of an emphasis on gifting new technology for the holidays, saving these for other occasions such as birthdays. Instead, she and her family focus on experiential gifts like a weekend getaway or special activities they can do together.

“It’s about the experience rather than technology,” she says. “Time together is what families covet more than anything.” Strohman acknowledges that digital devices can contribute to meaningful family experiences. For example, adults should distinguish whether kids are creating something together using technology — maybe they’re collaborating on a family video — or if they’re off in their own digital worlds. 

But ultimately, in an age when people spend nearly half of their day on some kind of screen, everyone can benefit from a break, and what better time than over the holidays? 

“We should all remember how to smell that pine tree or eat that apple pie without having to take pictures of it and show it off,” Strohman says.