Together But Isolated: Taming Holiday Screen Time

Together But Isolated: Taming Holiday Screen Time

Today I am happy to introduce a guest post from Doug Smith. Doug and his wife Karen are no strangers to many of you. They are co-creators of Simply Charlotte Mason, and you may have met them working the SCM booth at a convention near you.

Around here Doug holds the working title of “webmaster and more.” If it weren’t for him, there would be no SCM online. As you can imagine, he spends a lot of time working on his computer and monitoring technological trends.

Being a homeschool dad, Doug has been very intentional about the use of technology with their four children and has a real burden to help other parents do the same. So I’ve asked him to share some of his ideas on “screen time” during the holidays. Here’s Doug.

I recently read about an extended family with a wonderful holiday tradition. Each year they set aside several days to spend time together at one of their homes. This gathering has been a joy for the kids and adults alike.

But in recent years, more and more technology has crept into their together time. Conversations, playing games, telling stories, sharing a meal, and simply enjoying each other’s company has, sadly, been replaced by a room full of faces hidden behind screens—together physically, but very much isolated.

I’m sure many of you have been in similar situations.

One family tried to arrange a screen-free holiday gathering at their house. They planned lots of fun activities like nature walks, reading books, and playing games. But when they announced it to the extended family, along with a request to leave devices at home or check them at the door, the response was tepid. Some family members even hinted at staying away that year.

It might be hard for some of us to understand why that attempt was unsuccessful, but we must remember that other families may not be accustomed to the things we find enjoyable. The simple pleasures of reading a good book together or taking in the wonders of nature may be foreign to some.

Children who attend an institutional school may view reading a book as work to be done, rather than a pleasure, and observing nature as homework. They may have a mindset that being on holiday vacation means being free from those things.

And although everyone putting their devices in a basket at the door might appear to solve the screen problem, that may only be a surface-level fix. There will likely be resentment, pouting, and sulking, which doesn’t contribute to a good family time. (And I’m not talking about just the kids.)

So what can you do in holiday gatherings to encourage togetherness in the midst of individual screens? Here are three ideas to get you started.

Reading Together

You can still enjoy reading together! However, approach it thoughtfully.

Choose a good living book or story, of course, but make sure it’s approachable for all. This is not the time for a book with difficult language or heady concepts.

The goal is to read something so compelling that even those who don’t choose to participate at first will overhear and be drawn in. Look for something humorous, really interesting, or with cliff hangers.

And keep in mind your audience’s attention spans. They may not be used to paying full attention for a lengthy chapter, no matter how good the book is. So choose something short or easily broken into shorter readings.

Before long, you may see a few faces look up from their phones with interest and smiles. Who knows, it might lead to sharing great books in the future.

Game Time

The same concept of drawing people in also applies to games. Instead of a quiet table game, try a lively (and loud) game of Pit where the action is too fast to be looking at text messages on your phone. Or choose a game where a lot of people can interact, like Pictionary or Taboo.

Bring the action to a room where everyone is sitting and begin playing. The boisterous fun will be hard to ignore.

Embrace the Screen?

Electronic devices are not bad in and of themselves. It’s what we choose to do with them that counts. They can be creative tools or enslave us as consumers. They can help us communicate or isolate us and drive us apart.

If you have a screen-staring recluse in the group, you might be able to draw him in by taking advantage of activities and games that use our devices to foster fun interaction.

Look for party game apps that can be played together, like the fast-paced Space Team where players cooperatively shout silly gizmo instructions for everyone to perform on their devices: “Engage the gyro socket pulley!”

Or maybe form small teams to set out on a holiday-themed photo scavenger hunt. Then share the results for everyone to enjoy together.

And if you think others are up for a challenge, suggest matching wits for just one meal with a variation of the phone stack game. Before dinner, have everyone place their phones in a stack. The first ones to reach for their devices get to do the dishes!

Remember that in all of these things we want to have an enjoyable and inviting gathering with our loved ones. A little grace, understanding, and creativity can go a long way toward making that a reality!

Now it’s your turn. Please share your ideas and activities for bringing family together out of the isolation of technology. We’re looking forward to reading your comments.


  1. Love the phone stack game at the dinner table! And that game Pit — I remember playing that decades ago with my family…I think I was hoarse by the time we were finished!

    I really appreciate your ideas and the recognition that not everyone at these gatherings shares that viewpoint on screens, but there are still ways to roll with that. Your proactive attitude is terrific and I love the idea of even using screens for cooperative games. Heads Up is a phone game we’ve enjoyed (although only one phone needed).

    Great post, Doug!

  2. When one of my boys wants to watch YouTube videos, but we want to visit, he will find something that we would like and play it on our tv so that we can all enjoy it together.

    He will stop and visit sometimes too, just sharing an idea:)

  3. Any recommendations for good read aloud books? A Christmas Carol comes to mind but I would love to hear some of your favorites that might be good for all ages.

    • A Christmas Carol has the advantage of being familiar to most, but it’s a bit long unless spread out over several days.

      Hopefully others will chime in with some ideas, but here are a couple to start. James Herriot’s Treasury for Children is a collection of short stories designed for younger children, but pleasant for even adults. There’s one Christmas story in that collection. And of course, O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi is a classic Christmas short story about sacrificial giving, with a twist ending.

  4. Another fun screen game is Kahoot. It is a quiz game and can get very competitive. It can be played in teams as well.

  5. Good post, Doug! I agree–even with the exception for SpaceTeam, which challenges our auditory processing skills and makes us laugh together. “Deactivate the Sprogglefritz!” “Engage WarpFlexDrive!” “Balance Priorities”

  6. At our last family day with teens/adult children, we banned phones but had one or two 15-minute phone breaks (to check your phone) which made everyone happy.

  7. Every Christmas, we place on our coffee table the Tasha Tudor Christmas Book, “Take Joy”. It is a wonderful collection of songs, short stories, poems and old fashioned things to do. It would be a lovely book to share.

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