WELLNESS
11/26/2014 12:00 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2015
PRESENTED BY JOHNSON & JOHNSON

Why ‘Family Bonding' During The Holidays Actually Matters, According To Science

Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the official “Holiday Season,” a time of year that is focused on family as well as fun. But in recent years, smartphones and other technologies are growing increasingly common, often detracting from the time we spend with the people we love. However, you may not need to choose between your family and your phone. These gadgets can actually enhance your bonding time -- it just depends how you use them.

According to the Pew Research Internet Project, 90 percent of Americans owned a cell phone and 83 percent of adults between the ages of 18 to 29 were smartphone users at the beginning of 2014. To say that technology has forever changed the way we interact with one another and altered the way families spend time together during holidays is nothing new; however, these telling numbers have exposed the complexities that evolved our relationship to our devices, and, subsequently, to our loved ones.

One of the major differences is how social norms have evolved for annual gatherings, such as a formal Thanksgiving dinner. Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and school consultant and co-author of the book "The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age", has noticed the curiosity in this trend. “It would have been unthinkable 20 years ago that people would gather at Thanksgiving and people would have phones at the table,” she says.

And believe it or not, gatherings do more than just give you that warm fuzzy feeling; bonding with your family can actually make you mentally healthier. According to a study published by the Journal of Adolescent Health, frequent family dinners lead to higher levels of emotional well-being and satisfaction with life.

However, sitting around at the table with everyone is on their phone doesn’t count. The National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health found that an increase in parent-family connectedness helped protect teenagers from risky health behaviors, and mealtime is an ideal space to work on these connections. “Parent-adolescent communication accounts for some of the relationship between family meals and adolescent mental health,” Daniel Miller, an assistant professor of social work at Boston University, told USA Today.

So what impact could technology actually have on these occasions? Professor Jim Taylor at the University of San Francisco wrote on Psychology Today that “the ramifications of [tech’s influence on family bonding is] profound. Less connection -- the real kind -- means that families aren’t able to build relationships as strong as they could be nor are they able to maintain them as well.”

Unfortunately, the ones who could benefit the most are often impossible to pry away from their phones: the youngest family members, who get a great deal of social development from the holidays. Dr. Steiner-Adair’s research shows that when mothers and fathers stick their sons and daughters in front a tablet or similar piece of technology, children interpret this as a way for adults to exclude them from conversation, because adults find the youth of the family boring.

But despite some social hindrances, tech has also influenced familial rituals for the better. According to a study posted by Rutgers University, family meals have actually been on the rise since 2003, a few years before the smartphone boom. While this could be attributed to a number of factors, it would be remiss not to recognize technology’s place in creating easy, hassle-free occasions. While many used to view things like planning a holiday dinner and arranging travel as unpleasant, hectic experiences, technology has eased the burden during these high-stress times. Now, there are apps for Thanksgiving cooking, planning and more.

In addition, technology can also be used as a central force to bring families together. As an alternative to the family football game in the yard, some families now sit down and play video games, or select movie marathons from the DVR.

As every family interacts differently with technology, the important thing is to figure out how these new developments can help encourage your physical connection as opposed to detract from it. For some families, that means encouraging guests to drop their phones into a basket before they sit down to table. In others, that may mean everyone should be posting in a family Facebook group about what they are going to bring for dinner, or pose for an annual Instagram portrait.

No matter what, utilizing these moments of togetherness is integral to your health and your family’s wellbeing. Finding fun, easy ways of bonding, such as setting aside time to watch home videos or unplugging and playing charades, can intrinsically boost the connection family members have to one another.

Whether your Thanksgiving table embraces or shuns the presence of technology, recognizing the power of the medium can help you better understand its effects on you and your loved ones. At the end of the day, the opportunity to create strong familial bonds can benefit you both physically and mentally -- no matter what role a smartphone plays at your dinner table.

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