To Gift Tech or Not To Gift Tech? That Is Not The Question

While unpacking some holiday decorations I found a wish list that  my kids had put together a few years ago. It was heartwarming and included items like “a live owl,” legos, books, and “surprises.” While the live owl request required some conversation about animal safety, overall the lists were short, sweet, and offline. What grounded children! 

Turns out I just had to wait a few years for a reality check.

It’s not a news flash to admit that our family, like most today, have spent an extraordinary amount of time online in the past year and a half. A recent study revealed that screen time went up about 17% during the pandemic, a number that hasn’t come down despite long ago returning to school and work. Most teens spend the equivalent of a full time job with entertainment media. 

Three kids looking at an iPad

To gift tech or not to gift tech? That is not the question.

Given this context I have an urge to generate my own list designed to overcorrect for this trend. So far I am considering the following items: sunshine, rocks, and trees.

I do believe that my list features things central to kids’ healthy development. The challenge is that it doesn’t quite match a lot of kids’ tech-heavy requests. Parents often ask me whether or not gifting technology is the “right thing to do.” The good news is that the pandemic taught us some important lessons that can help us answer the question in a more meaningful way. It forced many of us to take a systems approach to screen time.

Instead of asking questions about “right or wrong” or “good or bad,” we started asking a different set of questions about screens and technology. 

  • What is working? What isn’t working? 
  • What does my child and our family need right now?
  • What are my kids’ strengths and what are their vulnerabilities?
  • What makes us feel better over time? What makes us feel worse? How do we attend to our wellbeing?

Research indicates that except for very young children, the when, why, what, and with whom of screens is just as important as the amount of time we spend with them.

For what purpose?

With this framework in mind, the better question isn’t “to gift or not to gift tech.” It’s to pause and ask, “For what purpose?” 

For example, we might think hard before gifting a ten year old a phone with access to Instagram just because a lot of other kids have one. Or if our teen is already struggling to engage with life off a screen, this might not be the time to introduce another online magnet for their attention. 

On the other hand, gifting a new video game can create opportunities for more family fun and playfulness in the winter months. Gifting an online class on stop motion animation might be just the thing to shift a teenager’s screen time away from isolated scrolling towards skill building and mentorship. 

Some families draw a hard line against gifting phones, games, and devices for any occasion based on budgets or values. But for the many families planning on tech gifts for any reason, consider their purpose for your family and your kids. Then wrap it up with the key ingredients for digital wellbeing.

Here are a few questions to get you started.

Does the tech gift encourage play and creativity?

Research shows that most of the games and apps marketed to kids as educational take a “drill and practice” approach to learning or operate in “smother mode” instead of embodying the spirit of free play that helps kids learn and grow. Just like blocks and art supplies, look for tech gifts that:

→ Encourage imagination, open-ended play, creative problem solving and exploration.

→ Put kids in the “driver’s seat” of their digital activities (as opposed to apps or platforms that rely on dark patterns designed to keep kids online for as long as possible).

→ Create a meaningful storyline or build a set of skills that kids can expand on through offline with family or peers.

It’s not just younger kids who need to create and play. Teenagers also benefit from digital environments that are safe, social, imaginative, and open-ended. Thoughtful gifts can be an opportunity to engage teens in media production, play, and creative expression.

Does the tech gift encourage connection and communication?

Too often with young children, technology shuts down communication and connection instead of fueling it. Whether it is talking toys or e-books, we adults tend to do less when digital content takes up all the space. This is often more about us than the tools themselves. Look for opportunities to co-view, co-create, and keep up the warm interactions regardless of the medium.

Teenagers also benefit from connection both online and offline. Teens who use technology to connect with friends do better than children who use technology as a means of consistently avoiding social interactions. This is true when it comes to both social media and gaming. For example, researcher Dr. Jane McGonigal has observed that young gamers who use games “to make their world better” have better outcomes than gamers whose goal is “to escape their world.” In other words, it really matters if they are gaming together or alone. Find gifts that allow for safe communication and collaboration whenever possible.

Does the content reflect and affirm the diverse and expansive world we live in?

Most tech gifts aren’t just a package of hardware or software. They are powerful storytelling machines. They may not start start with the classic cue, “Once upon a time…., but make no mistake. Our kids absorb compelling stories through video games, graphics, memes, advertisements, influencers, shows, and more. 

Stories aren’t just entertaining. They shape how kids view and treat themselves and others. Media content can either affirm kids’ identities and expand circles of caring or reinforce stereotypes and perpetuate harmful views. Unfortunately, research indicates that too often, media fail to reflect the fullness of our diverse stories and communities. For example, a new report from Common Sense Media shows that white bodies and stories are overrepresented across all platforms. 

This doesn’t mean there aren’t incredible stories and creators out there. Give your child or teen the gift of digital content that creates meaningful mirrors, windows, and sliding doors. Look at Common Sense Media’s ratings for diverse representations. When stories fall short or do harm, talk early and often about story, voice and power to protect them from the worst effects.

Am I ready and willing to co-create family agreements about healthy tech use?

As parents, we tend to greet new devices or games with equal parts excitement and dread. No matter your feelings, these moments present a window of opportunity for you to step in as an influential media mentor in your child’s life. This is because:

→ Transitions are often the best times for our brains to start and practice new habits.

→ Kids tend to be more open to conversations with us as part of gaining access to the new tools they have been yearning for.

→ Starting with more structure gives us “somewhere to go” as our kids earn trust and build skills. In other words, it is much easier to ease up on limits than it is to try to create them later on.

As our kids excitedly hold powerful new tools in their hands, the next best gift we can give them is a family media plan. This doesn’t have to be a long, formal document. Find a way to capture your agreements and your commitments to wellbeing and connection. Make it your own.

The gift isn’t the device, game or app. The gift is how we approach it.

Your list of preferred gifts might only include sunshine, rocks, and trees. It might also include games, apps, programs, devices, or tools. For most families, the reality is probably a mix of both.  Either way, our capacity to talk early and often about the when, why, what for, and with whom we spend our time and attention – online and offline – will far outlast anything we could buy or download.