Can you survive a device-free dinner?

By Hayley Tsukayama

Common Sense suggests that families worried about the effect of screens on their relationships try putting away devices at dinner. Photo / Getty Images
Common Sense suggests that families worried about the effect of screens on their relationships try putting away devices at dinner. Photo / Getty Images

Sick of Snapchat popping up alongside your snap beans at dinner? Common Sense, an advocacy and education group for parents, has a suggestion: Persuade your family to try a device-free dinner.

The group on Friday launched a campaign challenging families to put the devices away at dinner, stay off their phones and talk to one another. In sports-themed spots running during the Olympics, the group hopes to show how being distracted by devices can disconnect you from what's going on around you.

NBC will air the spots during primetime Olympic coverage, starting Saturday.

Common Sense sees the overall campaign as a multiyear effort; future aspects of the campaign will have a "holiday-specific pledge and New Year's resolution component."

The group, which has done extensive research into how devices affect kids and families, decided to focus on family dinner because it found that many families struggle over whether smartphones and other devices should be allowed at the table.

A new survey from the group, released with the PSA, found more than half of parents or guardians said they're concerned about technology at the table taking away from dinner. Thirty-five per cent said they'd had an argument about using devices at the dinner table.

Despite those concerns, 47 per cent said that they or a family member had recently taken a device with them to dinner.

Nineteen per cent said they keep their tech on the table while they eat - which has been shown to disrupt conversations even when the devices aren't in use.

And families are, overall, happy about the effects of technology: Sixty-one per cent said they feel it brings them together.

That paints a complicated picture, said Michael Robb, director of research at Common Sense. "Clearly they're struggling with this internally," he said. "It feels like they're torn on how to modernize these family moments."

Family dinners were an obvious place to focus on, Robb said, because they're already a place for conversation and personal connection.

Studies have suggested that family meals are important for developing vocabulary as well as ideas about nutrition. Others have shown that kids who have dinner with their families are less prone to acting out or substance abuse.

And while the idea of a family dinner may seem like a relic from a 1950s sitcom, Robb said that the group's research shows that it's still very common. The group polled more than 800 families with kids ages 2 to 17 across socioeconomic and racial lines for its survey and found 70 per cent of families reported they carve out the time to have dinner together five or more times a week.

We're just trying to get people in the habit of being more mindful about devices at this time.

"That was higher than I was expecting," Robb said. "But it points to the importance of family dinner as a cultural institution. And it means that this is attainable for most families; it's not just something of times gone by."

Common Sense is not interested in making you give up your phone altogether. Nor, Robb said, should parents feel like they have to be militant about enforcing a no-tech table. If, for example, the conversation shifts to a funny video someone saw online, it makes sense to watch it together.

"There's no research that doing it once in awhile is a problem," Robb said. "We're just trying to get people in the habit of being more mindful about devices at this time."

But unplugging for just the 20 or so minutes that you eat together may be enough to calm parents concerned about what the "right" balance of screen and offline time should be for their families.

To start wrestling with that question, maybe you should try sitting down to dinner without your phone. We dare you.

- Washington Post

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