For some, a lack of family dinners seems foreign. For others, it ironically feels like home. I distinctly remember a day in my sophomore year of high school, when my teacher asked my class of around 20 students, “How many of you eat dinner with your family every night?” Two or three shy hands wriggled their way up.
I was shocked to learn that so few people sit at a table alongside their siblings and parents, waiting to hear the day’s stories, school nightmares, or promotion announcements. In my home, dinner never fails to serve a plateful of new tales. But not every teen grows up with these nightly experiences. Likely due to technology and poor scheduling, many teenagers are distanced from their families, which can harm not only their relationships with parents, but their wellbeing.
My classmates in that class in high school weren’t alone. According to a 2012 study at Columbia University, 43 percent of teenagers do not have dinner with their families at least five times a week.
I understand that some families can’t share meals each night due to scheduling restrictions. But I feel that teenagers' absorption of technology is largely to blame for the lack of family dinners. As youth, we become fascinated by the world at our fingertips, neglecting that which lies in the kitchen downstairs. Sure, the former yields an immediate social satisfaction — but, I would argue that the latter breeds a family dynamic that transcends the limits of dinnertime.
An obsession with technology harms us on many fronts, most notably affecting our happiness. Researchers at Johns Hopkins, for example, have found that Facebook usage is negatively associated with well-being. Another study suggests that those who have fewer family meals show higher rates of depression and suicide involvement. Together, these results demonstrate that an obsession with social media and the negligence of family meals can adversely affect our mental health.
Certainly, when we are on our phones at the dining hall, we can connect with distant relatives. But when we are at home, we are also apt to spend time on this technology rather than with our families.
The neglect for family meals is also rooted in the American fascination with a fast-paced, busy lifestyle. Surely, job and school commitments may render our schedules inflexible, but often our daily routines are filled with social arrangements that could be postponed. Within these tightly-packed schedules, we should remember to shape out a time-slot for family.
At Princeton, where almost all students live on campus, distance from home already limits the opportunities for new memories and unity within the family. The study by Columbia University indicates that teenagers who have frequent family dinners are nearly one-and-a-half times more likely to say they have an “excellent relationship” with their parents than those who do not. So, when we come to school, if we come from a familial culture in which household dinners are tradition, the family dynamic is already better equipped to withstand the distance in order to maintain strong ties.
The importance of dinners in creating these ties can even be seen at Princeton. Here, we engage in a similar culture in the dining halls as some of us do at home — when we enter, we immediately search left and right, high and low, for a familiar face, someone with whom we can share our meal. Just as we create memories over the dinner table here, we should look back on our moments with our parents and siblings, and remember the legends of the dinner table.
Over Thanksgiving break, encourage a family meal on a day that isn’t marked on the calendar. Create a healthy habit worth savoring. Make conversation the main dish. In putting down our devices, not only can we prove to our parents we aren’t addicted to technology, but we can also forge meaningful ties and traditional familial values that are timeless.
Sabrina Sequeira is a first-year from Springfield, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.