When I was young, family vacations involved long road trips, my Walkman, 3 cassette tapes (usually Michael Jackson, Eddie Grant, and early U2 in heavy rotation), and the alphabet game. In many ways, these trips resembled the classic National Lampoon’s Vacation, which may explain why the movie has always been a favorite of mine. Fortunately, my family never had to drive across the country with a dead grandmother on the car roof, but I always empathized with Rusty and Audrey’s unrelenting boredom on their ride from Chicago to Wally World in LA.
Now that I am a mother and am planning my own long road trip summer vacations for my family, The Consultant and I have been reminiscing about what family vacations were like when we were kids. Sure, there were stomach-churning lunches at roadside restaurants and hours upon hours of staring at long stretches of cornfields. But I also remember staying up late and laughing with my family while we played cards around a campfire, my brother and I using our imaginations to reenact scenes from Star Wars in the woods of Minnesota, and hearing stories about my parents’ childhoods that they generally did not have time to share with me. I learned more about my parents and bonded more with my family while on vacation than any other time of my life. So, while I considered these trips “boring” as a tween and teenager, that family time, in retrospect, was priceless.
Fast-forward to today: the two eldest children in our blended family have cell phones. These two have logged record numbers of text messages the last few months, and we have had to implement very strict rules about phone use, going so far as to create social media contracts about the specific use of applications like Vine and Facebook. The younger children spend hours on their Leap Pads, iPads, and other electronic distractions. Our concern leading up to family vacations this summer is that these devices will interfere with the experiences we want to share with our kids.
A number of recent studies have examined the impact of cell phone and social media use on interpersonal relationships. Greater cell phone use has been associated with greater loneliness and poorer social skills than for those who have more face-to-face communication interactions.1 For example, a survey of over 3,400 North American girls aged 8-12 years old found that the more social media use, text messaging, and cell phone/video use the girls had, the more negative their social well-being (e.g., less healthy friendships).2 Even among strangers, having a cell phone (vs. notepad) on a desk during a “get-to-know-you” conversation was related to less closeness and lower relationship quality after the discussion. Granted, family members increasingly use cell phones and other electronic media (e.g., video games, Facebook) to stay in touch and feel connected.3 But what about their use during “down-time,” like vacations?
I searched far and wide for research on how technology use impacts intimate and family relationships. Unfortunately, I found very little research to inform my family. I have seen images on social media making fun of how people spend their free time looking at their phones rather than interacting with each other and have even caught myself doing this at times. The last thing I want is our family vacations this summer to look like this:
We have rules at our dinner table restricting cell phone and other electronic use, as quality time over family meals is associated with important developmental outcomes for children, such as school readiness and well-being.4 So, after careful deliberation, The Consultant and I finally decided to conduct our own social experiment by restricting electronic use during family vacations this summer: music-playing functions only. The kids are none too happy about this, but we do not want to risk losing this important family bonding time to Minecraft, Candy Crush, or Flappy Bird. The experiment may fail, and we may question our sanity within hours of departure, but time, especially quality family time, is so limited in our busy lives. The kids are growing up so fast. Being present as much as possible is the best gift we can give each other.
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1Jin, B., & Park, N. (2013). Mobile voice communication and loneliness: Cell phone use and the social skills deficit hypothesis. New Media & Society, 15, 1094-1111.
2Pea, R., Nass, C., Meheula, L., Rance, M., Kumar, A., Bamford, H., Nass, M., Simha, A., Stillerman, B., Yang, S., & Zhou, M. (2012). Media use, face-to-face communication, media multitasking, and social well-being among 8- to 12-year-old girls. Developmental Psychology, 48, 327-336.
3Padilla-Walker, L. M., Coyne, S. M., & Fraser, A. M. (2012). Getting a high speed family connection: Associations between family media use and family connection. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 61, 426- 440.
4Meier, A., & Musick, K. (2014). Variation in associations between family dinners and adolescent well-being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 13-23.
Dr. Jennifer Harman – Adventures in Dating… | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Harman’s research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.