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Thanksgiving Interrupted

Which one resembles your Thanksgiving dinner?

Freedom from Want, by Norman Rockwell

Freedom from Have, by Apple & Snapchat

Freedom from Want, is Norman Rockwell's iconic painting depicting the joy the Thanksgiving holiday. Freedom from Have, is what I imagine the Rockwell table would have looked like in 2017. 

Attitude of Gratitude

Thanksgiving is a time to express gratitude, share a meal and connect with friends. Or, if you're a teenager, it's a time to pig out in the afternoon, tolerate hanging with your family and feign interest in conversation long enough to avoid getting caught texting under the table. 

But not at my house...not this I thought.

I hosted Thanksgiving dinner this year and it was...interesting. No, it was frustrating and disappointing. Once again, I battled the Tech-Opoly and lost. 

Hosting Thanksgiving is not for the faint of heart. But, since sharing family meals is so rare these days, I felt it was worth it. After two  days of shopping, chopping, sauteing, roasting, frying, setting the table and cleaning, I looked forward to a enjoying a leisurely meal with family.

House Rules

I'm no Miss Manners, but I try to tow the line. If I'm invited to someone's home, I respect their rules. If the host doesn't have pets, I don't bring my dog. If I'm asked to take off my shoes, I do so, even if it ruins my-otherwise-fabulous-outfit. 

My battle with technology is no secret, nor are the rules of my home. I thought it would be no surprise to my guests when I asked them to put the phones away during our brief visit. 

I thought I was being reasonable. I resisted the urge to collect phones at the door and flush them down the toilet. We'd invited long time family friends, who know about the work I'm doing to balance media use in our family. And, we'd invited a family with three teenage kids roughly the same ages as mine, who struggle with similar tech addiction issues. 

The kids have grown up together and used to be quite close. But, since attending different high schools, and the dramatic changes of puberty, the kids had grown apart. All a normal parts of adolescence.

Maybe you remember similar experiences reuniting at holidays? You're stuck in a room full of people you hardly know and at first, it's awkward. After about an hour stuck in a room together, you find a ways to connect and friendships are rekindled. After all, lifelong friends are worth it! 

Even for adults, reconnecting with people you've not seen in a long time takes work. But, unlike teenagers, we've had years of practice managing social interactions, finding common interests and sparking conversation. 

When the Going Gets Tough, Just Text

All was going well, until I noticed something troubling. The kids were in the room together, but they were all heads down on their phones. Although unnoticeable to most, it was clear to me -- we'd given them a portable drug. The awareness wasn't new, but the clarity of purpose was.

To avoid moments of social anxiety or slight discomfort, they had on-demand relief in their pocket. As they retreated to the comfort of their 4x6 digital world, their solace was palpable. I watched them opt out of reality as they stepped into dark corners, took frequent trips "to the bathroom" and peeked at a notifications. Then, I got enraged.  I wasn't angry at them, I was angry at, well...the world. As a parent, how can I watch my kids chip away at their mental health one text at a time?


Dr. Jean Twenge

"In my research I found that teens spend much less time interacting face to face. In person social connection is one of the deepest wellsprings of human happiness; without it, our moods start to suffer and depression follows."

- Author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

After repeated requests to put the phones away, I asked the teens to hand them over. My kids detected my serious tone, and begrudgingly obliged. My guests, however, were a different story.

Again, I asked the kids to put the phones away, but they discounted my request as a joke. After a third and fourth request, they finally obliged, only to steal back the phones five minutes later. They aren't bad kids, they just didn't understand the gravity of my request, people rarely do. "What's the big deal?", they squealed.

I asked their mom to help me deal with the situation, and she tried, but no luck. Apparently, the request wasn't normal or expected in their family.

I thought to myself, "Am I really losing this battle in my own house? Has the world become a place where asking people to be device free is a herculean battle? Shouldn't people respect the rules of my house, even for a only few hours on Thanksgiving? After all, I'm the adult, right?"

Don't Give Up, They're Worth it

By the time dessert was served, the battle heated up further. The kids had all taken the phones back justified by the excuse, "we thought dinner was over." (What's unclear about No Screens at the Table?)

The mom was so frustrated at the ensuing battle, she was uncomfortable and tense. Parenting three teenagers is a 24x7 job, so I can understand the need for a break. Screen battles are endless and often, we give up to relax for a change. I noticed the rest of the guests becoming uncomfortable, and was tempted to just let the whole thing go and watch them slip into their siloed worlds. But if I couldn't fight for my beliefs in my own home, then I lose. They -- the Tech-Opoly, society, isolation, addiction, advertisers, etc. -- all win.

The teenage Modus Operandi (MO) is to wear parents down by ignoring rules or keep asking until they get a yes. And this strategy often works. But I was emboldened by the fight for something bigger than me -- a cause more important than a one night, and more significant than winning a fight. 

Happy Ending?

There was no fairytale ending. By the end of the evening, the mom suggested that her kids head home early in their own car because she couldn't stand the fight. I felt a combination of defeated and oddly energized to pursue my convictions.

Or, was I just totally insane? Will I ever have friends come over with kids or will they avoid my house to reduce conflict? Have I gone overboard asking guests to respect a few device free hours enforced on Thanksgiving? Is asking teens to put down their phones so rare? Is expecting parents to enforce rules with their teens unreasonable in society today?

What was your experience with screens and Thanksgiving? I'd love to hear more. 

Marissa Verson Harrison is the co-founder of​ ScreenAge BootCamp, an online training platform for modern families. We help parents, and the teens they love, balance media use and learn new skills for the knowledge economy. Sign up here to find out more!

Leave a Reply 4 comments

Erica - November 27, 2017 Reply

This is too bad. I have done thanksgiving for 26 years and have seen the change. My older kids know better and don’t rely on phones during meals/holidays. My younger neices and nephews are addicted and don’t know hot to be without. I had 24 people and asked everyone to stay off phones and for the most part they did. The trick is to prepare interactive activities and I think that made the difference. Kids do not know how to interact anymore. WWe taped my father’s life and every person had to ask a questions and listen for one hour. Everyone did. We played CLR which was a blast and we used our phones to the play Jackbox.TV, which everyone plays together and is a riot. Saying all that, I believe we have moved into the dark side of technology and society will suffer.

olga - November 28, 2017 Reply

Wow, this profound. Thanks

Chelsea - December 4, 2017 Reply

Phew. Stand your ground. If people can’t make it through dinner (you weren’t even saying the whole night) without a device for a little common courtesy (forget bonding and enlightening discourse) good luck to them when they have to have a business dinner.
We had a rule in my house when I was growing up, no phones during meals. Fast forward to all mobile devices all the time (and parents are just as bad as the kids – my mom and my aunt are attached to their phones) the new rule is:
If you check it, you have to read it aloud (the text or email or article) or SHOW whatever you saw.
Let me tell you, that changes behavior. People either learn real quick not to check their phone at the table OR we all have a very interesting conversation about: your boss, your girlfriend, what we all really think of Kylie, that grandma is still a gossip, THAT photo, the business deal you are putting together, your upcoming trip to Greece, etc. It has opened up a lot of venues for communication and you do learn a lot about what people are feeling/not feeling or thinking/not thinking.

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