Putting family first on Thanksgiving Day means more than converging around a common feast for a couple of hours before retiring to the den, the football game -- and Facebook.

Social media -- blogs, texts, Facebook, Skype -- now play a significant role in how we celebrate the season, both helping and hurting goals to strengthen familial ties over the holidays.

Skype is a godsend for countless families who aren't able to travel or have loved ones in the military or living abroad; seeing is the next best thing to hugging, even if it is via computer screen. Bridgitt Looney of Cottage Grove will be using Skype to connect with relatives for the first time this year.

"We visit only one side per holiday, Thanksgiving with my family, Christmas with the in-laws, but this will make us feel like everyone is together again this year," she said.

Missy Berggren, who works in marketing for Allina Hospitals and writes a nonrelated blog called Marketing Mama, thinks Facebook can "broaden the warm and fuzzy holiday feeling" throughout her whole network of friends.

"There will be 50 people posting pictures of their turkeys and family group shots," she said. "It'll be really sweet."

Thanks to technology, American families are more "connected" than ever -- on the surface, at least. But precisely because we can connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime, the idea of multiple generations or large blended families communing in person no longer seems the sentimental commodity it once did. Yet the old-fashioned, festive, face-to-face gathering is the perfect opportunity to create new, lasting memories and forge deeper connections, say relationship experts.

Emphasize fun, be realistic

Making an effort to have meaningful family talks is more important than ever these days, says Thomas Wright, a marriage and family therapist in Golden Valley.

"In my profession, we're worried about the effects on brains and psyches of communicating primarily via text and tweet," he said. "It's discouraging people from having long conversations, maybe even taking away their capacity to have them."

Wright's suggestions for making holiday connections include turning off the TV, or at least not letting it interfere with conversations, playing cards and table games that kids can join in and asking teens to turn off their phones for the duration of the gathering. "Good luck with that," he added. A much bigger no-no: Attempting any sort of family therapy.

"Some people hold back frustrations for years and suddenly when they get home they want to sort it all out," he said. "It's tempting, because you're all there together, but it's a bad time. Save it for later."

Keeping in mind that many blended families "tend to spend most of the day in a van driving from one place to another," try to time not only the meal but activities like storytelling that will make the most of the time when various family members will be there.

"Coach kids on interviewing grandparents and other adults about their lives," he said. "What was your first job? How did you spend your first paycheck? How did you meet Grandma?"

If the kids are reluctant, make it into a contest. The Legacy Project, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping people preserve and share their histories, is offering a computer to the young person who writes the best 300-word essay based on an interview with a person age 50 or older about his or her key life experiences (see details at www.legacyproject.org).

Dr. Marcia Eckerd, a pediatrics specialist and blogger for Psychology Today, cautions against trying to re-create the "perfect" scene.

"The original nuclear family is the least common type of all these days," she said. "Most are reblended or some variant. It's important to be open to creating traditions that are wonderful for the people who are there, whoever they are."

Turkey Day, semi-unplugged

Though demanding that every family member remain techno-disconnected from the outside world for an entire day seems too Draconian by today's standards, many Thanksgiving feast hosts are standing firm on allowing no phones or game devices at the table.

Katie Muehe of St. Paul will celebrate Thanksgiving at her sister's home in Eagan. The whole family is very tech-savvy, she said, "even the grandparents." But there will be no phones at this dinner table.

"There is nothing worse than being at the table with someone on their phone," Muehe said. "More thankful for your iPhone than your family? Stay home."

Vadim Lavrusik, who grew up in Eden Prairie and now manages a journalism program for Facebook out of New York, points out one way that social media can come in handy, even when you're in the same room as the relatives you're texting.

"My family and I will actually send each other messages on Facebook poking fun at other family members in private," he said.

But others will keep their smartphones handy, only because they have to.

It's easy to refrain from posting on Facebook or tweeting, said Lesley Sackreiter McDougall, a research analyst from Mendota Heights, but employers can and do take advantage of the 24/7 connection that employees' phones provide.

"Will I be on my phone for fun? No," she said. "But seeing as I'm thankful for my job. I will be responding to any texts from upper management."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046