Our NPR poll, conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, finds about a quarter of children surveyed live in homes where — on a given night — the TV is on, or someone is using an electronic device. (The poll was based on a nationally representative sample of U.S. households with children. About 1,000 caregivers are included.)
The poll also found that, despite families ranking a family meal as a high priority, about half of children live in a home where, on a given night, families don't sit down together to eat or share the same food.
Lots of families we heard from told us that family dinners are special times: They just don't happen every night. For many, it's a weekend dinner where everyone looks forward to being together. But for a choice few, it seems, family dinner is the glue that holds the family together...
Several studies have suggested that regular family meals contribute to healthy eating habits. For instance, one study found that middle-school kids who routinely ate with their families tended to be healthier eaters when they reached high school. And there also seems to be emotional benefits as well.
"We think family dinners matter because they provide an opportunity for families to sit down together, to relax, to communicate, to share happenings about their day" says Kelly Musick, an associate professor at Cornell University whose research focuses on modern family dynamics.
But in an era when so many families are stretched thin, it's possible that a nightly dinner may not be the prime opportunity for communicating or relaxing together. If a meal is slap-dash and stressful, is it really making a family stronger? Musick says it's not clear.
"Our research shows that the benefits of family dinners are not as strong or as lasting as previous studies suggest," says Musick.
The family dinner is iconic in part for its use in story development: it is a staple of print, TV, and movies where relationships between characters are revealed. It is assumed that this reflects real life, and those who see its demise often suggest that this illustrates "what is wrong" with modern life.
How much of this is true?