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Research Shows Family Dinners Have ‘Insignificant Effect’ on Teen Drug Use

Skepticism over the commonly held belief that family dinners curb substance abuse among teens has led researchers to discover the opposite.

Image: 

“Dad, can you pass that joint—I mean, the butter?”
Photo via Shutterstock

By Allison McCabe

12/03/13

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Among the many benefits attributed to the family dinner, the prevention of drug abuse is one that has been researched the most. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, an organization associated with Columbia University, has been studying the link between family dinners and substance abuse for ten years by analyzing data collected from surveys filled out by teenagers. The studies have consistently found a link between more frequent family dinners and a lower incidence of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use among teens.

Family values proponents and others have found such results unsurprising. The connection between family dinners and healthier, happier teens "conjures up Norman Rockwell images of families seated around the table together," said Daniel P. Miller, assistant professor of human behavior at the Boston University School of Social Work.

But Dr. Miller and other scientists were skeptical of those results and wondered if the findings would hold up under closer scrutiny when income, parent's work hours, and other controlling factors were worked into the study. Last year, he and his colleagues accessed data from a different federal survey that followed 21,000 teenagers for almost ten years. Because external factors were more tightly controlled with this data, the researchers were able to conclude that the frequency of family meals had an insignificant effect on behavioral and academic performance. Last year, another pair of researchers, Kelly Musick, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, and Ann Meier, associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, used teen data to specifically examine the link between drug use and family meals. They also found that there was no correlation between the frequency of family dinners and subsequent drug use when controlling for factors like quality of family relationships, activities with parents, parental monitoring, and household resources.

Both Miller and Musick were careful to note that even though the evidence connecting family dinners to drug use is lacking, family dinners are still important. "They might not be important in the way we typically talk about them," said Dr. Miller. "But that doesn't mean they don't have all sorts of benefits."

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