CHRIS McKEEN / STUFF
If you think family dinners are the last refuge of real conversation and relationships, think again.
The most confronting finding of a national survey on the New Zealand family dinner was how much we are using our devices, phones and TVs while sitting and eating together.
It shows 74 per cent of kids are buried in screens at dinner. And an amazing 83 per cent of their parents are doing the same.
It’s the context of when that is happening that is most surprising – because we all say we want to spend quality time together.
Why we no longer eat and talk with our kids
The study by independent researcher Sarah Woollett, commissioned and developed by My Food Bag and Stuff, reveals just 51 per cent of families eat dinner together each night. Three-quarters did so a generation ago.
It also reveals a vast majority of children want more family dinners together and guilt-ridden parents want the same.
Yet when they do get together over dinner, out come the phones and devices and on goes the TV.
While we might feel connected when on a phone or device, research shows we are kidding ourselves.
Dr Sam Marsh is a research fellow at the National Institute for Health Development who is studying young kids and key family routines that help protect them from obesity and build resilience.
One of those routines is family meals.
She calls it “very concerning” that so many parents and kids are on screens at the dinner table.
Marsh says children need a strong parent-child relationship and important touchstones that help build that include family meals, just before bed, driving in the car to school.
“All these moments throughout the day that were once a chance for a few minutes interaction are being lost. I don’t think it’s just kids’ screen time because I think parents’ screentime is huge. Parents interacting with kids is very important and parents are very distracted.”
She’s a good way of describing what’s happening.
“Historically, if you are doing chores around the house you are physically not available but you are emotionally available because you are not distracted. Whereas when a parent is on a screen, they are physically available to a child because they are not doing anything, but emotionally they are not available. This is quite a big thing, a big change over the last 10, 20, 30 years.”
Marsh says screens are a great shortcut to communication and connection. Some families, especially with adolescents, might find it a lot easier to connect with someone else the other side of Auckland than to talk to people at the table in front of them.
But she argues the downside is losing the benefits of a strong family connection.
“One of the most important things to children is feeling like they belong and the family group should be ground zero for that.
“Parents will always love a child, no matter what they do, and that’s a very safe thing for children. But online connections are much weaker, they can come undone quickly, and children that rely on them can feel vulnerable.”
Another problem is online connections are often with others just like you: same age and interests. When there are disagreements, it’s easy to unfriend and break the connection.
“Being part of a community and part of a family means co-existing with people who are different to you and who have different life stages and different interests.”
Marsh says she’s often asked for the science behind the best thing to do. She usually replies that the best way to work out issues like mealtimes and screens is to answer the question: “What are your family values and do you think you being on your screen all the time and your kid being on the screen all the time is your family value?”
What did the Marsh family decide?
Her children are under 5 and they have no screen time. She and her husband have a couple of hours on screen a day, then no more.
But for those who want the science, plenty of studies show the negative side to screens at meals.
In a study released earlier this year, British Columbia University researchers looked at the effect of smartphones on face-to-face interactions and compared the enjoyment of people who used devices at dinner with family and friends with those who didn’t.
Lead author Ryan Dwyer says people were happier with the phones gone. Distraction was a key factor.
He says his research shows while phones are good at distant communications, they “may undermine the benefits we derive from interacting with those across the table”.
In a second study involving more than 100 people, participants were sent a survey to their smartphones five times a day for a week that asked how they had been feeling and what they had been doing for the past 15 minutes.
The researchers saw the same pattern, with participants reporting they enjoyed in-person social interactions less if they had been using their phones.
Study senior author psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn says happiness research shows us face-to-face interactions are incredibly important to day-to-day wellbeing.
“There is a real and detectable benefit from putting your phone away when you’re spending time with friends and family.”
LAWRENCE SMITH / STUFF
My Food Bag co-founder Nadia Lim calls the stats around the use of technology at the table shocking and sad.
“When I heard the device ones, I thought ‘wow that is amazing’. It must be because most people nowadays have to take some work home and it’s sad that society has turned that way. You just have to take it into your own hands and control it yourself.”
She admits to be guilty of occasionally using a cell phone “but definitely it is not a regular thing”.
Lim says it’s ironic that technology which was supposed to make us more connected and bring us together “is doing the opposite”.
Her general rule is no devices at the table. “We make a point of putting them away. It’s too easy to get distracted by them, and it’s only for 15 or 20 minutes. It’s pretty easy to do.”
Even easier is no TV. “We haven’t had a TV for seven years. I’m so glad. You get used to it and we don’t have to have that TV-off battle.”
ToughLove New Zealand trainer Sytske Oldenburger says it’s down to what a parent values about the family dinner. They make the rules on what is appropriate at the table.
“If the parent’s not happy with all these cell phones beeping at the table and all the shut down and non-communication, well just stick a box on the bench and tell everyone they can put them in there and they can have them back when the dishes are done.
“If a kid knows something is not being taken off them permanently, they will generally meet you half way.”
Oldenburger says put it like this: “If you put it in the box while we have dinner, you get it back in an hour. If you don’t put it in the box, you wont get it back for two hours.”
* The Dinner Makes Families study was commissioned and developed by My Food Bag and Stuff, and is an editorial association. It was conducted by independent research consultant Sarah Woollett and Stuff was consulted on the selection of the researcher, methodology and drafting of the survey questions. The study interviewed 630 New Zealand adults (margin of error +/-3.9%), and 521 children aged from 8 to 12 years (margin of error +/-4.3%).
– Sunday Star Times