Digital distraction is a real challenge for many families. With so much of our communication, information and entertainment moving to online formats, both parents and kids are spending more and more time on devices like smartphones. That can translate into spending less time connecting face-to-face, even when families are together -- like at the dinner table. But do you have to ban technology from family meals altogether? Or is it possible to give digital devices a place on the dinner menu? We’ve asked families across the country how they handle technology at the table, and over the years, they’ve shared some fun and thoughtful approaches to balancing dinner and screen time. Here are some creative ideas to help you find the right compromise between a tech-free table and one where technology might actually spark conversation and connection.
1. Use social media as a conversation starter. For example, all family members bring devices to the table for the purpose of sharing one photo or post or from their social media feeds with everyone. Then, everyone shares something about the chosen photo/post.
2. Share your favorite internet videos. Adults and kids alike bring their favorite videos to dinner. For a twist, families can pick a video category, such as cats, dogs, bloopers or beautiful scenery. It may be helpful to set the expectation that each family member gets to share only one video during dinner, so that you can also save time for other conversations.
3. Try dinner with a movie or favorite television show. Scott, a single father we know, wanted to get his three sons to talk at dinner. So he persuaded his sons to join him in making ratatouille pasta. Then, they watched the Disney movie Ratatouille, and he engaged them in conversation about the movie and compared their own pasta with the movie's. Other ways to engage the whole family in a shared viewing experience might include turning off the sound (no closed captions!) and trying to figure out what's happening, or challenging family members to provide their own made-up narration to match the characters' mouths.
4. Play games via video chat with family members living in other locations. For Thanksgiving, one of our team members plays charades with family members around the country, with hilarious results. We've also worked with a number of military families over the years who use Facetime or Skype to enjoy the company of a deployed service member during family meals.
5. Encourage device use for the purpose of connecting with people who are present at the meal, not people who aren't! One of our team members conducted a national survey which found, in part, that adults are twice as likely as kids to bring their devices to the table, so this is a rule that all family members could use! Parents can't take family dinner time to pull out their devices and answer work emails or send texts, but they can use them to look up the answers to questions that come up during the dinner conversation. Do fish ever sleep? Who won the 1984 World Series? Or you can assign different family members to use their phones to aid in activities like table games such as Fictionary, where having access to an online dictionary is helpful.
Just as there’s no one right way to have a family dinner, there’s no single answer to how much technology, if any, should be allowed at your table. Setting aside screens is a good idea, and we encourage families to see if they can go device-free once a week or more with the help of our conversation starters and family dinner games. But since digital devices aren’t going away anytime soon, finding a happy medium that helps family members participate in mealtimes without having to “switch off” entirely can be a sensible choice. And who knows? Taking a little help from technology could be just the thing that adds a new spark of fun and conversation to your family dinner.