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Many years ago, when Jimmy Carter was in the White House, he and his wife Rosalynn were criticized for permitting daughter Amy to read books at the dinner table. These days, reading during dinner seems pretty tame. These days, parents struggle to keep the TV off and the cell phones away.

You might think that letting kids (and you!) bring devices to the table is not worth fighting about. Even though it’s obvious that those who bring their electronic friends to dinner aren’t very good at making conversation with the rest of the family, it seems harmless enough. And maybe you don’t really want to hear what your teens have to say anyway!

Researcher Jayne Fulkerson from the University of Minnesota School of Nursing found out you’re not alone. Her study reports that “mealtime media use is common among families with adolescents.” She found, though, that not only was conversation between parents and teens reduced. Nutrition of the meals served was too.

To begin the study, Fulkerson and her research team surveyed more than 1,800 parents, asking how often their preteen and teen children watched TV, talked on the phone, texted, played games or listened to music using headphones during family meals.

Two-thirds of parents said teens watched TV or movies during meals at least some of the time and one-quarter said the TV is on during meals very often or always. About a quarter of parents also said their adolescents texted, talked on the phone, played video games or listened to music through headphones during a family meal. This is a lot of media use.

What’s most surprising comes next. Parents were asked to describe a typical family dinner at which teens might be using all this media. Parents who reported the most media use by their teens reported the least nutritious meals. The dinners they described included fewer servings of salad, fruit and vegetables, and substituted soda, energy drinks, or 100% juice for milk.

This seems to indicate that at mealtimes in many homes, everyone is disconnected from the two purposes of dinner, which are to reconnect with each other at the end of the day and to share a meal that is well-balanced and healthful.

The researchers didn’t ask the parents if they also used electronic devices during dinner. Fulkerson said, however, “In several surveys I have done with parents and youths, they have indicated that there is a lot of multitasking going on.”

This matters. Especially during the teen-age years, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open. Expecting kids to be present at dinner at least a couple times a week – and to engage with other diners instead of with media – provides an opportunity for pleasant conversation and for catching up with what your kids are thinking.

In addition, nutrition is especially important during the teen years, when brain development spikes to levels not seen since preschool and when bone and muscle development move just as fast. Teens may not get the nutrition their bodies need without adult guidance. The best way to deliver that guidance is to prepare good food for the entire family and expect teens to be at the table to share it.

If you’ve given up on cooking because it’s too hard to compete against the lure of electronics, it’s time to make a change. Start small, with one or two intentional dinners per week. Expand the dinner schedule until more than half your family’s dinners are true family affairs.

And enforce a new rule: devices off and away. Instead, talk to each other!


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.