Anne K. Fishel, Ph.D.

Anne K Fishel Ph.D.

The Digital Family

Should You Turn Off Tech at Dinner?

Tips for parents to manage technology use at mealtime

Posted Oct 21, 2014

Teaching manners used to be a fairly straightforward, top-down parenting activity at the table. Parents told their kids not to talk with their mouths full, to keep elbows off the table, and to stay seated until everyone had 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, 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 of 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 is OK for them to use their phones and screens at the table.

But, rather than get into a lather about whether technology at the table is an unavoidable fact of life or the ruin of family life, let’s just take one step back. After all 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 we can offer a more nuanced perspective:

  • When technology at the table competes with conversation or makes us feel that we don’t have the full attention when we speak, technology has no place at the table. But, what about the times that technology enhances connection? ‘Hey, look at this photo from class today?’ Or, ‘I want to read you a funny text I got from your aunt’. In other words, if technology can be shared at the table, perhaps it has a place. Maybe just a small place.
  • Do as I say, and do as I do. In other words try to model the same technology manners that you expect your children to follow. If for example, you adhere to a ‘no technology’ policy, then agree to keep digital devices on silent mode and out of the kitchen during mealtime. It’s going to be hard for a teen to resist checking if a beep or a ding indicates that a message has just come in. But if you all agree on the policy, you should all stick to it.
  • As a family, decide on the rules for technology use at the table. Perhaps, everyone can check their smart phones at the door or put them in cabinet or in a basket. Or instead, your family may decide to reserve the right to use search functions to settle disputes that arise at the table.  

As in many areas of modern life, our use of technology far outstrips our scientific understanding of it. There may be some good reasons to use tech 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 quickly 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. While there isn’t too much research to draw on about long-term effects of texting at the dinner table, there are several studies about another screen at the table—TV. TV-watching during dinner, which occurs at about half of American dinner tables, is associated with greater caloric intake and lower consumption of eating fruits and vegetables. We tend to eat more while watching TV because we pay less attention to satiety cues.

We don’t have enough data yet to answer the question of how the impact of smaller screens plays out at the table, but there is no substitute for the connections that come from the face-to-face interactions of sharing a family meal.  And having a double standard around technology for parents and kids isn’t going to improve those interactions. 

Anne K. Fishel is a professor at Harvard, and the author of Home for Dinner.

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