Dear Dr. Debbie,
I think our family needs some rules, or at least guidelines, about the use of cell phones and other devices at the dinner table. I grew up with a “no tv and no phone” standard for family meals, which took place two or three times a day. Now that our oldest has a phone of her own (she’s 12), I’m leaning toward all of us (my husband and myself included) leaving our phone on silent when we’re at the table together.
Time to Talk
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Your parents had the right idea. Family meals can be an enjoyable time of the day for re-connecting with one another. Since cell phones are a new facet of family life, we must rely on social scientists to help us keep up to date with parenting advice.
Research fromVirginia Tech led by Shalini Misra, observed 100 pairs of adults at a coffee shop who were randomly asked to talk to each other about either a casual topic or a meaningful topic. At their own will, some of the research subjects kept their cell phones out of sight while others had them in hand or on the table. Whether the conversation was about a casual topic or a more serious one, the participants reported feeling less empathy if a phone was seen.
“In the presence of a mobile device, there is less eye contact,” Misra comments. “A person is potentially more likely to miss subtle cues, facial expressions and changes in the tone of their conversation partner’s voice when his or her thoughts are directed to other concerns.”
She suggests that even without buzzing, beeping, or playing one’s favorite sound effects, a phone at the table threatens “a focused and fulfilling conversation.”
Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston University, was interested in the effect of parents’ use of cell phones in the presence of their young children. She and her colleagues observed adult caregivers and their children during fast food meals, measuring the adults’ “absorption” with their cell phone, and observing their interactions with their children.
Radesky concluded that such devices can interfere with parent-child engagement. Te adults who were more focused on their phones appeared to be disconnected to their children and were more likely to raise their voices, speak critically or even use physical means of guiding behavior.
“These results do raise the issue that if we get into the habit of always ‘checking’ or reaching for our devices during the day-to-day routines that sometimes, honestly, get a little boring for parents, we run the risk of displacing important early learning opportunities for our children,” Radesky says.
Mealtimes, she advises, would be better spent with attention to one another. “These face-to-face interactions are a crucial part of young children learning language, social skills, self-regulation and empathy.”
Truly enriching meals
In addition to larger vocabularies, children whose families regularly spend meal times in pleasant conversation tend to have higher grades, higher self-esteem and less trouble as teens.
Anne Fishel, co-founder of the non-profit Family Dinner Project and author of Home for Dinner: Mixing Food, Fun and Conversation for a Happier Family and Healthier Kids is another expert who concurs.
The organization’s website, thefamilydinnerproject.org, summarizes current research to affirm that a pleasantly interactive family meal is “good for the spirit, the brain and the health of all family members.” Further, “the stories told around the kitchen table help our children build resilience. The icing on the cake is that regular family meals also lower the rates of obesity and eating disorders in children and adolescents. What else can families do that takes only about an hour a day and packs such a punch?”
Nip a bad habit
Teens may be the hardest age group to get to curb their cell phone use. So before your daughter gets much older, have a firm limit on when and where she can be tapping her thumbs.
A study from Delaware County Community College in Pennsylvania of more than 400 students in eighth through eleventh grade revealed that over texters were behaving much like compulsive gamblers. They had difficulty cutting back on texting. Texting was keeping them from sleeping, and they were dishonest about how much time they spent texting. Parental guidance, and of course, good modeling, will help to keep your children from heading down this path.
Technology can have its place in family life. It can be used to bring families together by sharing photos and videos from the day or adding information to a conversation. Mobile devices offer flexibility in how the internet can enrich our lives. Mobile media “can be a great launching point for play, learning or conversation,” Radesky says.
But once the conversation has been launched, please put away your devices away until after dinner.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
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What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.