The holidays are here. It’s time to disconnect from our devices and spend quality time with family and friends, right? In a society where technology seems to bleed into all moments and social situations, one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen at the restaurant where I work was a group of eight people who sat down, immediately turned off their phones, and placed them in the center of the table. It was a simple act that showed a commitment and respect for real connection that left me so impressed I was rendered momentarily speechless.
It seems like a healthy behavior that could—and probably should—catch on. In a world where many of us feel more naked without our phones than we do without our pants, disconnecting from the virtual world in order to connect face to face is becoming increasingly important to our health as a society.
It’s tempting to think of technology at the table as more of a young-person problem, and a 2015 nationally representative survey conducted by the nonprofit group Common Sense Media did find that tweens (ages 8-12) spent about six hours per day using digital entertainment media, and teens (ages 13-18) spent about nine hours per day plugged in. Those hours were in addition to time spent on the same devices while in school or doing homework. The survey’s authors called these findings “astounding” and “absolutely mind-boggling.”
But in 2016, the same group surveyed parents about their use of media and technology. It turns out that the parents of the same age group (8-18 years of age) spent more than nine hours per day on average looking at the screens of their smartphones, tablets, or TVs (also in addition to time spent on these devices while at work). Although it might seem plainly intuitive that behavioral modeling is a more effective way to teach children than a “Do as I say, not as I do” approach, 78 percent of those same parents reported feeling that they were actually being good role models for their children in regard to technology use. Factoring out the hours spent asleep, at work or at school, the data from these surveys suggests that kids and parents alike are spending the vast majority of their remaining available time plugged into devices.
Sure, a certain amount of technology use is inevitable—part of the wave of modern momentum. But face-to-face communication, especially among families, has been shown to be beneficial to physical and psychological well-being. And a decline in such connection may have dire consequences on society’s youth.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that more than 50,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2015, which was not only the highest number in history, but also surpassed fatalities from car crashes and gun violence (including homicide and suicide) by far. Family mealtimes may be one way to combat this problem in young people, as a 2012 report published by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse identified a strong link between frequent family meals (five to seven per week) and a lowered incidence of drug use in teens.
That is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of shared family meals, though. In 2014 the American College of Pediatricians published an article titled “The Benefits of the Family Table” which cited a multitude of research studies linking shared family meals to a wide variety of positive outcomes. Children and teens who shared frequent family meals were not only less likely to engage in disordered eating or be overweight, they were also more likely to eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in unhealthy fats, fried food and soda. The article also highlighted research showing that teens who shared frequent family meals were more likely to get better grades, less likely to engage in sexual activity, less likely to experience depression, display fewer emotional and behavioral problems, and were more likely to report having excellent relationships with their mother, father and siblings. The authors concluded by saying, “When families regularly share meals together, everyone benefits—the children, parents, and even the community. Making the ‘Family Table’ a priority from an early age can serve as a ‘vaccine’ against many of the harms that come to children from a hurried lifestyle.