November 26, 2013
Topics: Culture + Society
In 21st-century America, where we no longer quilt on the front porch, play musical instruments together, or plant beans side-by-side in the field, dinner is the primary occasion we use to connect with one another. It’s also an important time to tell family stories, teach social skills and model good manners. There is so much going on at dinner, it’s a wonder there’s time to eat!
Teaching manners used to be a fairly straight-forward, top-down parenting activity at the table. Parents told their kids not to talk with their mouths full, to keep their elbows off the table, and to stay seated until everyone has finished eating. Parents knew the rules, and imparted them. But, today’s parents have a whole new set of table manners to grapple with—those associated with technology. And, according to our survey data, this is a dicey area—one where what’s good for the gosling, turns out not to be so good for the goose.
Many parents have two sets of standards for technology rules at the table. According to our Digital Family survey responses from over 300 parents, only 18% of them allow their children to use technology at the dinner table, while almost twice that number of parents believe that it’s OK for them in turn to use their phones and screens.
The table manners that really matter are the ones that help us connect with one another at the table. That’s why reprimanding kids to keep their elbows off the table seems much less important than insisting on no interrupting when someone is speaking. If we look at the use of technology through this lens, perhaps there is some nuanced advice to offer:
As in many areas of modern life, our use of technology far surpasses our scientific understanding of it. There may be some good reasons to use technology at the table. Some might argue that playing a video game at the table could encourage conversations, or that being able to share an interesting email could vividly bring your family up-to-speed on a conflict you’re having with a colleague. Maybe, when adolescents are allowed to use technology at the table, they are more likely to share doubts they have about what they are sharing on Facebook. What about the benefits of Skyping during a meal with grandparents who live across the country?
However, we can’t ignore the possible downsides, either. Several studies have shown that TV-watching during dinner is associated with greater caloric intake, and lower consumption of fruits and vegetables. Other distractions during mealtime, like playing computer games, or just being away from the table, are also associated with disruptions in family interaction. We don’t yet have enough data to answer the question of how the impact of small screens plays out at the table, but there is no substitute for the connections that come from the face-to-face interaction of sharing a family meal.