Thanksgiving UN-Interrupted: Unplug to Connect This Holiday

Nov 27, 2019

This is an update to a blog I wrote after our Thanksgiving feast 2017. As you'll read below, the evening didn't turn out the way I'd hoped, to say the least. I've included the original post below and added a section upfront about how I'll do it differently this year.

Whether you're hosting a meal for Thanksgiving or attending as a guest, you'll agree  "that person", who insists on digital media restrictions is rarely voted most popular at the party. Yet, despite the deep sighs, eye rolls and threats of noncompliance, I continue my fight against addictive media influence, especially when it comes to family. 

Before you give up the fight against society norms, remember this: your attention is the most precious commodity you have -- more valuable than money -- and the personal, authentic connections you enjoy with people in your life are what you'll be remembered for in the end. 

If you'd like more help changing your family's relationship to addictive digital media -- especially in time for Winter Break -- use this coupon: GOBBLE for 50% off our course here. We offer a simple, proven way to get your kids off screens without nagging, screaming and fighting. If you're still wondering whether it's okay to just "let kids be kids" check out Tristan Harris' videos from earlier this year where he clearly explains how addictive digital media is "downgrading humanity." 

 Tips for Thanksgiving 2019

Give Notice

Send a note in advance. For most families, Thanksgiving without devices will be an unwelcome surprise and may take some time to get used to. Teenagers may need to catch up on SnapStreaks and parents can dig out the regular camera to prepare for the big day. Write a note to your guests explaining that you'd like to try something different this year, in an effort to cultivate connection. Acknowledge the fact that change may be uncomfortable, and express appreciation for their cooperation. Think of it as an experiment and prompt your guests to see they feel after time interacting with each other rather than the people on the other end of email, text, phone, or social posts. Remember -- you'll set the tone for the evening, so only send out the message if you can walk the walk.

Avoid Temptation

The most difficult, yet effective way to improve your Thanksgiving feast is to collect phones at the door. If your guest recoil at the notion of giving up their phones for the night, the second-best option is to park phones at the entrance. This phone displacement at least interrupts the boredom-urge-dopamine reward cycle, and may bring consciousness to the strong withdrawals guests will feel without a phone in their pocket. DON'T ASSUME that asking guests to "put the phone away" will result in behavior change. Unfortunately, we've become so habituated to the digital slot machine in our pockets, the first one to violate the rule is likely to be Grandma.

Ask Permission

Few people, including me, realize the extent to which we allow digital media to disrupt human connection. We accept devices as equal, if not dominant, participants in our personal exchanges, unaware of how the intrusion impacts our connection with the human being in front of us. If you allow phones at your celebration, suggest that your guests request permission to introduce the device into the conversation, and honor the response of the group. For instance, when discussing a family member or pet, we typically pull out the phone in 2 seconds to illustrate that moment with a photo, but after a few minutes searching for the photo, we see a text, then get a call, and see a funny video on ticktock, then look up and the person we were talking to has started looking down at their own device.

Narrate Usage

If you have to use your own phone for something -- and really think if you HAVE to use it -- narrate out loud what you're doing and why. By explaining why you're using the phone, you're modeling respect for the people around you, acknowledging that devices themselves are not bad when used to enhance human interaction. Once you've finished with the phone, put it back in the front entryway with the rest of the phones.

Thanksgiving Interrupted 2017

Attitude of Gratitude

Thanksgiving is a time to express gratitude, share a meal with family and connect with friends. If you’re a teenager, however, it’s a time to eat a big meal, tolerate your family and feign interest in conversation until you can start texting under the table.

But not at my house…not this year…so I thought.

I hosted Thanksgiving dinner this year and it was…frustrating and disappointing. Once again, I was felt at battle with people in my life under the influence of addictive digital media.

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 enjoying a leisurely meal with family and friends.

House Rules

I’m no Miss Manners, but if I'm invited to someone’s home, I respect their rules. For instance, if there's a "no shoe policy" I take off my shoes, even if it ruins my-otherwise-fabulous-outfit.

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

I resisted the urge to collect phones at the door, expecting my adult guests to happily comply with my wishes. One family also had teenagers, roughly the same ages as mine, who struggle with similar intrusive digital media issues. In fact, the kids grew up together and were quite close at one time, but, since attending different high schools, had grown apart. All normal stages of adolescence.

Maybe you remember similar experiences reuniting on 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 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, Isolate!

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, interacting with people, places or things online. 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 discomfort, kids habitually tapped the on-demand relief in their pockets. As they retreated to the comfort of their highly -curated 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 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?

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 only a 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.” (I thought to myself, did "no screens at the table" lack clarity?)

The mom was so frustrated at the ensuing battle, she became annoyed and tense. Parenting three teenagers is hard and the screen battles are endless, so I can understand the need 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, the most effective way for families to reduce digital media consumption and increase human connection. We help parents and the kids they love, create healthy tech use habits and find tech-life balance. Find out more!

Subscribe to our occasional blog and laugh with us about parenting in the ScreenAge. 


50% Complete

  • Feeling you've lost control of screens? Yea, we all have. 
  • [Recreational] Screen-Free Week is an invitation to reduce hours spent on recreational screens and increase hours in the real world...being human.
  • Join us online Thurs. April 25, 12 pm PST for a Quickstart Workshop and Live Q & A to kick off Screen-Free Week 2019.
  • Invest 30 minutes to improve your family's quality of life. Register below!