By Anne Fishel, PhD and Tristan Gorrindo, MD

Many of us enter the holiday season with high hopes, but rarely do our family get-togethers turn out to be like the Normal Rockwell paintings we strive to create.  Poorly behaved family members, disrupted travel plans, and sky-high expectations for family reunions are classic fodder for holiday conflict and disappointment. Now, we can add a new item to the list of potential holiday landmines—technology use and dependence.  Here are five holiday-themed digital mishaps to be avoided:

1.  Over-reliance on technology.

Whether we are relying on a new GPS to get us over the river and through the woods or on text messages from airlines to update our flight status, we may find that technology can be as fallible as our human brains. And, it's not just while traveling for the holidays that we depend on technology.  In our own homes, pressed for time, we may use our phones or laptops for a shortcut: checking the Web to find a new online recipe, searching the Internet for directions on how to assemble a child's toy, combing medical sites for information to understand a relative’s new diagnosis, or trusting Amazon to deliver a last-minute gift so that it arrives on time. We often overestimate the reliability of technology and assume that it is foolproof.  But during this high-stakes time, we should always raise an eyebrow when pulling new information off the Web.  Getting lost, missing a connecting flight, or burning the New Year’s goose will certainly seed feelings of frustration and disappointment at a time when we already have unrealistic expectations about how perfect the holidays will be. Remember that information gleaned from the Internet is rarely flawless, and can leave us open to the same frustrations as being let down by human imperfections.

2.  Expensive gifts that have ongoing costs. 

In a 2011 Nielsen survey, almost half of kids age 6-12 were hoping to find an iPad under the Christmas tree.  Cell phones, video game systems, and laptops also made it onto many letters to Santa.  While parents will often make the financial stretch to get their kids these gifts, there is little discussion of who will pay the ongoing cellphone bill, data plan, or the cost to purchase additional video games.  

Parents would be wise to discuss the ways in which children will need to earn (through allowances or jobs) income that can be applied to monthly costs.  Letting kids know that Santa doesn't cover unlimited text messaging plans before getting a phone will help set expectations that the technology is a gift that sometimes comes with strings attached.

3.  Thank you texts, Virtual Gift Cards, and Generational mismatches

Growing up, I was always expected to write a card on stationery with a stamp to any relative who gave me so much as a bookmark for the holidays. And, my mother told me that these notes should not be perfunctory. Instead, I was supposed to fill a whole card, stating how the gift had affected me, how grateful I was, and how much I looked forward to seeing this relative again. Today, many kids rely on much less formal ways to show thanks. A verbal thank you or a quick text may contain the intention to show appreciation, but that message may be missed in translation. An older person who expects a card may well feel hurt, and a younger person who is urged to send a card may feel that this is overkill. “And where do I get a stamp, how do I address the envelope? It’s way too many steps!”

And there are other potential misses—Does it really feel festive to receive presents by email, rather than unwrapping a colorful present suspensefully in front of the giver? I know my young adult kids would much rather find a goofy wind-up toy rather than an iTunes gift card in their stockings.  They still want to unwrap something and play with it.

4.  College kids with digital expectations

When young adults return home from vacation, technology is a common source of tension. Parents and kids alike have gotten used to more privacy and autonomy, and yet may yearn to reconnect in ways they used to. One parent told me that she was dreading having her kids find out that she is on Facebook because she’s sure that her college sophomore daughter will want to friend her -- she’s relishing her newfound privacy. Young adults are using technology more than any other demographic group, and their constant texting and checking of their social networks may well feel off-putting and dismissive to parents who want to tell stories at the dinner table without any digital interruptions. Not to mention the unpleasant startle that can come from borrowing each other’s laptops for a second and seeing something you didn’t expect.


5.  Virtual connections aren’t a replacement for a trip home

In this hyper-connected world, many of us have forgone plans to travel to the homes of friends and family members and have instead opted for virtual visits via Skype, Facetime, or other types of video chat.  Take Sally, a 35-year-old newlywed who lives in New York City's SoHo.  She's decided not to travel home to Nebraska this Christmas to see her family but has instead arranged a group family video chat through Google Hangout.  After 15 minutes of chatting with her brother, mother, and father in which Christmas pleasantries are exchanged, she hangs up.  She snaps at her husband that she's tired of doing his laundry and then refuses to open her Christmas presents.  For Sally, this virtual visit didn't have the rich texture of sitting in the kitchen as dad bakes a ham or of singing carols by the fire with cousins and neighbors.  Much in the way that a phone call home from summer camp can make us more homesick and not less, a video visit with family can often remind us of all that we are missing -- a frustration we might actually take out on those that are in the same room.  

For those planning a virtual visit, think about ways in which traditional holiday rituals, rather than just a chat, can be applied in the virtual world.  Singing carols, unwrapping gifts, sharing pictures, or even watching a holiday movie together are all likely to make the holiday interaction more emotionally fulfilling.


We’re not saying bah humbug to all technology this holiday season.  On the whole, we feel that technology has the potential to help families with the holidays.   Family members serving overseas or living far away can beam their smiling faces right onto the tablet PCs in our living room, digital slide shows can be used to foster the telling of old family stories, and last-minute gifts usually can be next day shipped to almost anywhere.  But at the core of any holiday celebration is the time we share with our family and friends.  We should use technology to enrich this kinship, but our holidays shouldn’t depend on it.

Tweet us about the ways your family is using technology this holiday season @MGHDigitalFam

Copyright Tristan Gorrindo and Anne Fishel, 2012

About the Authors

Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D.

Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D., is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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