For many busy families, an evening meal together is one of the few moments we get to all sit down together. Most families try to sit down together for an evening meal, and on average, families do so 5 nights a week. There is good reason to do so – Research consistently finds that families that eat dinner together have better family communication, higher family cohesion, more positive psychological outcomes for children and teens, better nutrition, and lower Body Mass Index.
But family dinner looks different for us than it did 10 years ago. Media has inundated our lives, and unlike how televisions are constrained to a single room, streaming devices, laptops, tablets, gaming systems, and cell phones make media possible at any moment in any room in a home. The consequence of this is that families are negotiating how and when to allow media during family time together.
Let’s be clear – families are using media during meals. Nearly 75% of caregivers report using their cell phone during mealtime. In a population-based sample of American families, 67% of parents reported that their teens occasionally watched television or movies during family meals; 25% of parents reported that television viewing during family meals “always” or “usually” happened. Texting (28.4%), talking on the phone (25.5%), listening to music with headphones on (22.2%), and playing hand held games (18.2%) occasionally occur at dinner, with five to nine percent of parents reporting that these non-television media were “always” or “usually” occurring during family meals. Taken cumulatively, media seems to be a common guest at family meals.
A growing number of studies find that we parent less well when we are using media. We speak to our children less frequently, and we play with them less. This extends to mealtime: frequent media use during mealtime is associated with lower family communication and lower perceived importance of the family meal, eating less fruits and vegetables, less mindful eating, and higher Body Mass Index for children.
Most families are already setting rules around media use during mealtimes, and typically it’s a “no phones at the table” rule. But even when families have this rule, we know that parents and children are still responding to their phones during mealtime. It turns out, rules that prohibit media usage in certain contexts (i.e., no phone usage at the dinner table) are less successful than media rules that are more rigid (i.e., no phone ever). This may explain why families place value on unplugging from devices and media during meals but are often unable to comply.
Instead of setting ourselves up to fail with rigid media rules, parents should use a more mindful and planful approach to media during the family meal.
Media is not universally bad, and families can think about media during meals as a tool to occasionally build greater family closeness. Co-watching media and playing video games together are linked with higher levels of family connection and there is little reason to think that simply eating during that experience would change the positive association between family co-use of media and family connection. Rather, it seems that family rules around media during mealtime need to distinguish behaviors that are involving the family (i.e., co-watching a sporting event, looking up the answer to a family member’s question on a smart phone, or showing pictures of the day to everyone) and those that do not (i.e., checking a social media feed or watching a television show with head phones on).
So, what is the best approach?
Media should not be invited to dinner every night. Family time together is fleeting, and a focused hour of conversation is critical to keeping the family connected and healthy. But an occasional family meal in front of the television to watch a sporting event or trivia show is also an opportunity to build bonding. Using a mobile device to briefly look up some critical piece of information for a family conversation, such as when a soccer tournament is or where a jaguar lives, allows family conversation to continue. The key is being mindful of these interruptions and making sure they don’t turn into distractions from family time. Instead of a nightly guest, the evidence seems to favor an occasional, conscientious invitation of media to dinner.