The Importance of Offline Relationships in a Digital World


By trusted Pinwheel affiliate
Kate Harner, MS, MBA
Founder of

We want our children to be happy. How can we help them get there? Is it money? Fame? Good genes? No. What makes a good life is the quality of our relationships. Let dive into why and how!

This finding comes from the Harvard Study of Adult Development - the longest study of human happiness. Dr. Waldinger, current director of the study, explains: “Personal connection creates mental and emotional stimulation, which are automatic mood boosters, while isolation is a mood buster”. 

But what happens to relationships in our kids’ digital world? 


Instead of improving human connection, our devices, especially smartphones, have the potential to isolate us. Families feel increasingly disconnected from each other because everyone is staring at their own addictive screen. Digital friendships are shallow. 

The entire business model of digital media is designed for isolation. Our children’s wellbeing suffers from lack of close relationships, and experts assign the blame for the mental health crisis among young people on smartphones

Relationships support wellbeing in 3 ways: 

1. Self-reflection: relationship with yourself 

2. Empathy: relationship with others 

3. Presence: relationship with the world 

All are essential for human happiness. All disrupted by devices. 

Self-Reflection: Relationship with Yourself 

In order to have a relationship with others, children first need to have a relationship with themselves, to define who they are - which cannot be done online. 

Their digital self, designed for social validation feedback, always keeps them busy, while the internal work of self-reflection is neglected. 

When our children are overloaded with digital inputs every waking minute, they grow up without ever building their identity. Their personality is a sum of their “Likes”. 

Empathy: Relationships with Others

This fake online self lacks empathy, which is acquired in face-to-face relationships. Young people today are severely deficient in empathy because their entire social life takes place on their phones. 

How would they build a relationship with a future spouse? How would they parent their future children? 

As empathy diminishes in close relationships, they can no longer sustain human happiness. 

The love of the family is the sanctuary our children need. A simple family dinner has shown to protect children from drug addiction, violent behavior, depression and suicide, while boosting their self-esteem and school success. 

But the benefits of a close family relationship only become possible when everyone puts their phones away, and looks, listens, and talks to their loved ones with full undivided attention. 

Presence: Relationship with the World 

Beyond the family, there is a larger world in which our children need to find their place. As long as humanity existed, opting out of relationships was never an option, since your success depended on working well with other people. 

Yet, today the default behavior for some kids in uncomfortable social situations is to retreat into their phone. Avoiding the essential mental work of learning to connect with others. Instead of supplementing human relationships, a regular smartphone becomes an escape hatch. As parents, we need to prepare our kids for real life, which means it’s ok to feel socially awkward once in a while. 

Tolerating social discomfort is necessary to get an education, build a career, start a family, or travel the world. 

Our kids need a phone that allows them to pay attention to people. 

Technology to Support Relationships 

If we want our children to be fully present in any social setting - a school field trip or a family dinner - we need a phone that helps them exercise their social skills, build empathy, and create meaningful relationships. 

Pinwheel was created as a parent-managed smartphone used for communication, not addiction. The idea is to give parents the power to turn a smartphone from a slot machine into a tool that supports children’s development. Parents can create custom modes to fit their child’s lifestyle: for example, make only certain apps available during the school day - like Google Classroom or a calculator, and after school activate messengers, Kindle for reading, and Spotify for music.

No matter what time of day, there is never anything toxic on the phone - no social media, video games, and web browsers are allowed. A curated list of apps includes WhatsApp and Google Meet to connect with friends - but your child would not have access to Instagram or Snapchat or TikTok to disappear down the rabbit holes of addictive content. There is no App store. Only the parent can add new apps, and the choice is limited to those approved by child psychologists. 

The difference between technology that disrupts relationships and technology that supports them comes down to the phone as a digital drug and the phone as a tool. When the phone is used for logistics to bring kids together instead of driving them apart, the phone is a tool. When it is used for social media, the urge to connect with peers is satisfied with a social media binge, depriving the child of life-long benefits of close relationships. 

By giving our kids technology built with their wellbeing in mind, we can support them in building relationships essential for their healthy growth and development.