By Michael Robb, Common Sense Media, Director of Research
It may seem obvious that eating dinner with your family is a good thing. Research provides plenty of support for the importance of family dinner for kids: Learning vocabulary, fewer behavior problems, less substance abuse, and healthier eating are some of the positive outcomes.
But how is family dinner changing in response to the massive technological changes in American society? To find out more about how families are managing devices during family dinner, Common Sense Media commissioned a poll of nearly 900 families with children between the ages of 2 and 17 years old. Here’s what we found:
Family dinner is an institution. Seventy percent of families eat dinner together five or more times a week.
Dinner is a time for sharing. Almost all (93 percent of) parents think conversations at family dinners are important for talking about things happening in their children's lives.
Devices aren't welcome but often have a seat at the table anyway. Even though previous research has found that 88 percent of adults don't think it's OK to use a phone at a family dinner, 47 percent of parents said they or a family member used a mobile device at dinner in the last week. Thirty-four percent said they had the TV on for all or most dinners.
For families whose dinners involved a device, parents felt conflicted:
A majority (51 percent) of parents said mobile devices made them feel disconnected from their families.
Over half (58 percent) were concerned that devices were hurting their conversations.
A third (35 percent) said mobile devices at dinner caused arguments.
And yet, 61 percent of parents thought mobile devices helped bring families together through sharing content, such as pictures, videos, or posts.
No one is arguing that occasionally sharing a YouTube video or showing off pictures from the day is harmful. And yet, in the digital age, it's easy to let devices occupy more and more of our family time. As more kids and parents bring their devices to the table, we wonder if a prime opportunity to connect with family without distractions is getting lost. Past research suggests caution. One study found that parents in a fast food restaurant who were using devices spoke less to their children and their children were more likely to act out to get attention. Other research has found that even the presence of a phone on the table can hurt the quality of conversation.
Common Sense Media promotes technology use for learning, fun, and bringing people together, but we also see a need to balance media and tech with undistracted face-to-face time. There are still times when it's good to focus just on the people in front of you.
So, when you have a family dinner, commit to putting devices away for those 30 minutes (or, if you have small children, the six minutes of dinner!). Turn your devices on silent. Better yet, put them somewhere where you can't see them and where a notification won’t tempt you to check it. Enjoy a device-free dinner as part of a healthy digital lifestyle, and make the most of family time.
Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org.