Plugged in or tuned out: Technology at the dinner table

Consider suggestions to maximize the affordances of technology while reducing its potential drawbacks.

According to national surveys by Pew Internet Research, 45 percent of American adults and 23 percent of American teenagers own smartphones to not only have telephone and text conversations with one another, but to also connect to the Internet, access social networks and play online games. The rise of social media and the increasing availability of Internet-ready devices have allowed individuals to be more connected to one another than ever before – at least digitally. Two-thirds of adults indicate that they use social media to connect with friends and family. Increased cell phone ownership has made it easier for us to touch base with our spouse or children on a daily basis. A quarter of Americans report that their family is closer now than when they were children due to new technologies.  

On the other hand, many individuals have expressed a growing anxiety over technology disrupting the connectedness between family members. In the article “Is Technology Fracturing your Family?” Gary Small writes about technology creeping into once-sacred family rituals having been shown to make a significant difference in the long-term health and well-being of our children. The University of Minnesota found that regular family dinners lead to better literacy rates, less disordered eating, increased health through better nutrition and fewer risky behaviors in youth. Technology becoming more mobile has allowed it to infiltrate our dinner tables, making it easier for parents to check a quick email or teens to quickly update their Facebook status.

Though technology has allowed us to be more connected while apart, it can disrupt those moments of every day connection when we are together. The key to maximizing the benefits of technology and minimizing the drawbacks is in finding balance. As a family, determine times when use of smartphones should be limited. An effective pre-dinner ritual might be to have each individual place his or her phone in a basket prior to dinner to signify the start of the meal or family night. This solution also works well for slumber parties – by having all the youth place their phones in a basket during the party, they are more likely to learn to be present with those who are in the room.

Regular conversation, eye contact, and laughter strengthen our brain’s capacity for human connection – but those things can be difficult when distracted by the allure of technology. Together, families can set boundaries and find a balance that can help them stay connected while apart and build crucial relationships while together.

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