By Carolyn Jabs
Holiday music is in the air — punctuated by the rings and dings of smartphones. Regardless of their traditions, lots of families will be making rules about when not to use cellphones—during midnight mass, at the Kwanzaa dinner table, while lighting Hannakuh candles, and so on. Most parents can agree that it’s a good idea to set aside part of the holidays to focus entirely on the people who have been able to gather in the same room.
At the same time, it’s also helpful to remember all the ways technology can bring families closer, especially at this time of year. Young people, in particular, filter much of their experience through their phones, so turning off the phone for extended periods of time may actually make them feel less connected.
Integrating the capabilities of technology into the holiday has several benefits. First, it allows richer contact with distant family and friends. Second, it can simplify holiday chores from party planning to greeting cards. And, finally, it gives tech-savvy kids a meaningful role in making the holidays special whether by documenting every dish at the holiday feast or playing DJ during a family party.
Here are just a few of the ways technology can enhance your holidays. Whenever possible, use the simplest apps so as many people as possible can participate.
Plan Parties. Does your neighbourhood do an annual carolling party? Would you like to get friends together for a cookie exchange? Do you want family members to take charge of a dish for the family feast? Using an app like Party Planner will help you manage the details from inviting guests and tracking responses to delegating tasks and keeping a grip on the budget. Entering necessary information the first year may take a little time, but it lays the groundwork for effortless traditions in years ahead.
Send Greetings. Even though fewer families have time for handwritten cards or newsletters, the tradition of sharing holiday greetings is worth preserving. Use your phone to take a photo or make a short video that captures what’s unique about your family this year. Do something goofy, sing a few lines of a song together, have each family member write or speak about something memorable. Distribute through social media, email or even in an envelope. Do this every year and you’ll create a very special timeline that shows your kids growing up before your eyes.
Start a Family Media Channel. Establish a blog or a social media group, and limit access to extended family and special friends. Invite kids, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents to participate, providing whatever support they need to get connected. Encourage everyone to post inside jokes, recipes, holiday memories, bits of family lore. To make people more comfortable about sharing things that are heartfelt or silly, establish a simple rule: what appears on the site can’t be shared anywhere else without permission.
Tune Up. Build a festive family playlist for the holidays and other occasions. Ask everyone old enough to talk to make suggestions. Of course, there are holiday playlists available on sites like Pandora but it’s a lot more meaningful—and fun—to juxtapose grandma’s favourites from the ‘40s with something your nephew learned in preschool.
Chat Long Distance. Coming home for the holidays may be everyone’s dream but it’s not always feasible. Schedule a time for a video chat with distant loved ones. Group chats can sometimes be awkward so encourage family members to take turns. Do a little coaching so kids are prepared to thank relatives for gifts and maybe even model clothes or demonstrate what they can do with a new toy. Light candles or sing together. Ask questions that prompt elders to share memories and stories.
Group Text. If video chatting makes everyone (especially teens) self conscious, try using GroupMe, a free app that allows everyone in the family to see the same text messages. GroupMe works with SMS and every Smartphone platform. Give it a try in your immediate family, and then expand the group to include cousins and other relatives.
Play Games. Ask pre-teens for the best family friendly games or find apps that simulate classics like Scrabble and Checkers. Help grandparents sign up so they can play across the room or across the country. If someone in the family is lucky enough to get a video game system, be sure at least one game is easy enough and light-hearted enough to be played by all ages. Consider creating customized games for your family. For example, try making up a scavenger hunt that involves taking photos connected with family traditions—a beloved family ornament, a sleeping relative, Grandpa’s favourite cookie, the dog wearing a holiday hat.
Collect Photos. On special occasions, everyone takes photos and videos on their own phones. Even if someone says, “Send me that picture,” people forget and fragments of the holiday disappear into the undifferentiated photos on various devices. This year, set up a password protected site on Flckr, Instagram or even Google. Send the link to everyone in the family. Ask them to upload their favourite photos and videos to a create a collective album.
There are, of course, plenty of other ways technology can make the holidays more fun and even more meaningful. Embracing these possibilities with an open heart makes it more likely that everyone will respond well at the times when someone says, “Let’s put away our phones and drink in the joy of being together right here, right now!”
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about families and technology for more than 20 years. She is also the author of Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart, a book that describes how to address conflict in families, schools and communities. Available at Amazon and cooperativewisdom.org.