Over the past 17 years, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA Columbia) has surveyed thousands of American teens and their parents to identify factors associated with an increase or decrease in the likelihood of teen substance use. We have learned that a child who gets through age 21 without smoking, using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol is virtually certain never to do so. And, we’ve learned that parents have the greatest influence on whether their teens will choose to use.
Our surveys have consistently found a relationship between children having frequent dinners with their parents and a decreased risk of their smoking, drinking or using other drugs, and that parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children.
Simply put: frequent family dinners make a difference.
In this report, The Importance of Family Dinners VII, we examine the link between the frequency of family dinners and teens’ substance use, their access to substances, and the quality of teens’ relationships with their parents and siblings.
Compared to teens who have frequent family dinners (five to seven per week), those who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than three per week) are:
- Almost four times likelier to use tobacco;
- More than twice as likely to use alcohol;
- Two-and-a-half times likelier to use marijuana; and
- Almost four times likelier to say they expect to try drugs in the future.
There is also a correlation between the frequency of family dinners and a teen’s access to drugs. Compared to teens who have frequent family dinners, those who have infrequent family dinners are more likely to be able to get alcohol, prescription drugs or marijuana in an hour or less.
This year’s study again demonstrates that the magic that happens at family dinners isn’t the food on the table, but the conversations and family engagement around the table. When asked about the best part of family dinners, the most frequent answer from teens is the sharing, talking and interacting with family members; the second most frequent answer is sitting down or being together. Add in similar responses such as spending time with particular family members or laughing and telling jokes, and the result is that three-quarters of teens who report having dinner with their family at least once a week find the interaction and being together to be the best part of family dinners.
Teens whose families frequently eat dinner together not only spend more time at the table together, they spend more time together in general. Time with parents is important: compared to teens who spend 21 hours or more per week with their parents, those who spend seven hours or less per week with their parents are twice as likely to use alcohol and twice as likely to say they expect to try drugs in the future. And the teens surveyed were more than three times as likely to say they would like to spend more time with their parents than to say they would like to spend less time with their parents.
Family dinner is an ideal time to strengthen the quality of family relationships. Teens having frequent family dinners are more likely to report having excellent relationships with family members. As the quality of teens’ relationships with their parents declines, their likelihood of using tobacco, alcohol and marijuana rises. Siblings are important too: teens who believe their older siblings have tried illegal drugs are more likely to say they expect to try drugs in the future.
Of course, dinner isn’t the only time parents can engage with their children. There are other opportunities for conversation and teens need consistent messages from parents on alcohol and other drugs. Teens whose parents agree completely with each other on what to say to their teen about alcohol and other drug use are less likely to use alcohol and marijuana and less likely to expect to try drugs in the future. Whenever the conversations occur, it is important for parents to talk to their teens about what is going on in their teen’s life and what is expected with respect to alcohol and drugs.
Our research findings on the importance of family dinners inspired us in 2001 to create an annual, national day of celebration, CASA Family Day — A Day to Eat Dinner with Your Children™. Family Day is celebrated every year on the fourth Monday in September, as a reminder to parents of the importance of family dinners. In 2011, Family Day will be celebrated on September 26th. The president, the governors of all 50 states, and more than a thousand cities and counties all across America recognize the importance of family dinners by proclaiming and supporting Family Day. Hundreds of community organizations, churches, schools, and social centers celebrate Family Day. For more information about Family Day, and for ideas about how to make dinner together fun, visit www.CASAFamilyDay.org.
The findings presented in this report come from The National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVI: Teens and Parents, which CASA Columbia released on August 24, 2011. This year we surveyed 1,037 teenagers ages 12 to 17 (546 males, 491 females), and 528 parents of these teens via the Internet. We also conducted our usual telephone survey of 1,006 teens ages 12 to 17 (478 boys and 528 girls) in order to continue tracking trends from prior years. The methodology for the 2011 annual survey is described in Appendix A.
A Word of Appreciation
I want to express CASA Columbia’s appreciation to Steve Wagner, President of QEV Analytics, Ltd., for administering the telephone survey and especially for his insightful work in analyzing the data, and to the staff at Knowledge Networks, including Jordon Peugh, Poom Nukulkij and Jeffrey Shand-Lubbers, for their administration of the Internet-based survey.
On CASA Columbia’s staff, Cathleen Woods-King managed this undertaking and wrote the report. Sarah Tsai of CASA Columbia’s Substance Abuse and Data Analysis Center (SADACSM) assisted in the data analysis. Kathleen Ferrigno, CASA Columbia’s Director of Marketing, and Lauren Duran, CASA Columbia’s Director of Communications, reviewed and edited the report. Emily Feinstein, Associate Director of The Joseph A. Califano, Jr. Institute for Applied Policy, assisted in the survey design and reviewed and edited the report. Jane Carlson efficiently handled the administrative aspects.