A study released last week reaffirms the importance of family dinners in the lives of children. Past research has shown that children who regularly eat dinner with their families are healthier, more successful in school, and less likely to abuse substances. The latest study adds another benefit to the list: Family dinners help kids rebound from cyberbullying.
The study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, found 1 in 5 kids experienced cyberbullying in the last year. The data, taken from more than 18,000 students ages 12 to 18, showed a connection between victims of cyberbullying and struggles with depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, fighting, vandalism, and substance abuse.
“We found that emotional, behavioral, and substance use problems are 2.6 to 4.5 times more common among victims of cyberbullying,” Frank J. Elgar, the study’s lead author and a professor at McGill University, said in a statement about the study.
But more family dinners protect adolescents from the negative effects of cyberbullying, according to the study. The more times a week victims of cyberbullying ate dinner with their families, the less likely they were to wrestle with the common problems Elgar and his team identified.
Without any weekly family dinners, victims of cyberbullying were seven times as likely to experience negative effects than students who were not victims. With at least four dinners a week, that dropped down to four times as likely. The study found regular family contact and communication alleviates both the mental health and substance abuse effects common in adolescents who are bullied online.
Because many children and teens have private access to their phones and social media accounts, repeated and aggressive cyberbullying often happens without anyone else knowing.
“In a way, cyberbullying is so insidious because it’s so hard to detect,” Elgar told Reuters. “It’s hard for teachers and parents to pick up on.” But family dinners provide regular, open communication that protects children and teens from spiraling down while being bullied. The study notes other times of face-to-face contact, like car rides, are also helpful.
“We don’t know exactly what those parents were talking about at dinner or while driving around in the car,” Catherine P. Bradshaw from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told Reuters. “But we do know they were spending more time together face to face. … If parents want to try to figure out how many nights a week should I turn off the TV and spend time with my kids, it’s nice to see data on this.”