What was it like before cell phones? Remember 15-20 years ago, when houses still had landlines and going on the computer meant doing word processing type tasks? Kids talked to their parents, or their friends, and there was little else competing for their attention. Fast forward to now, and you see parents, as well as children, facing their little handheld devices instead of each other. Child-parent social interactions at meal time have been shown to be beneficial for kids. Families who eat together, sharing food and conversations, have better family dynamics. Their children are also less likely to be obese and engage in risky behaviors. As the magnetic pull of technology infringes more and more into our family time, parents should model better technology etiquette themselves. They should also provide their children with clear rules and expectations.
My family always eats meals together. Dinner at our house is a lively and happy exchange of funny stories and serious topics, peppered with opportunities to offer advice. As my children have gotten older, we all chime in equally, sharing our wisdom when one of us voices some difficulties. Even so, we still struggle to ignore the chimes of our cell phones announcing a new text or a push-notification.
Emotional Connection and Mobile Device Use
Verbal communication requires an emotional connection, which itself begins with nonverbal communication. A study from Boston University Medical Center looked at how the use of technology influences child-parent interactions. The results showed that, “Maternal use of mobile devices was associated with 20 percent fewer verbal and 39 percent fewer nonverbal interactions.” The more time a mom spent on her device, the less encouragements and support she gave her child. This is an important study because emotional connection is based on face to face interactions. Children become rooted emotionally and feel secure through reading and interpreting non-verbal communication. This back and forth interaction is key to self-regulation. If the caregiver is busy on his/her smart phone device, the child is not getting the social feedback he needs to build the foundation for emotional regulation and stress regulation.
Meal Time Should Be A No-Technology Oasis
I am all for technology, but I do believe there needs to be rules around how it is used. Technology taps into our reward center, specifically the dopamine receptors. It’s therefore hard to resist its appeal without being especially mindful and purposeful. It is useful to remember that we are social creatures who have evolved to respond and thrive through face to face social interactions. When I worked in hospitals and longterm care facilities, it was striking that the patients who did the best were the ones who were well supported and socially grounded, not the ones who spent the most time on their iPad or mobiles. Meal time is a simple way we can establish a no-technology oasis in our day. Connecting with our loved ones face to face, 1-3 times each day, ensures that we continue to foster the only social network that truly matters.