Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Assessing Causality and Persistence in Associations between Family Dinners and Adolescent Well-Being

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Assessing Causality and Persistence in Associations between Family Dinners and Adolescent Well-Being

Article excerpt

Adolescents who share meals with their parents score better on a range of well-being indicators. Using 3 waves of the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (N = 17,977), the authors assessed the causal nature of these associations and the extent to which they persist into adulthood. They examined links between family dinners and adolescent mental health, substance use, and delinquency at Wave 1, accounting for detailed measures of the family environment to test whether family meals simply proxy for other family processes. As a more stringent test of causality, they estimated fixed-effects models from Waves 1 and 2, and they used Wave 3 to explore persistence in the influence of family dinners. Associations between family dinners and adolescent well-being remained significant, net of controls, and some held up to stricter tests of causality. Beyond indirect benefits via earlier well-being, however, family dinners associations did not persist into adulthood.

Key Words: family demography, family structure, Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (ADDHealth), parental investment/involvement, well-being.

In recent years, the search for ways for families to connect in an increasingly complex and fastpaced world has led back to the dinner table. The allure of the family meal has captured the attention of the popular press (David, 2010; Gibbs, 2006; Hoffman, 2009), policy groups (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse [CASA], 2010; Child Trends, 2010), and researchers (for a review, see Fiese & Schwartz, 2008) in the United States and abroad (Ermisch, Iacovou, & Skew, 201 1; Ross, 2011). The literature shows that adolescents who share family meals have healthier eating habits and body weight (Fulkerson, Kubik, Story, Lytle, & Arcan, 2009; Hammons & Fiese, 2011; Neumark-Sztainer, Hannan, Story, Croll, & Perry, 2003; Taveras et al., 2005; Videon & Manning, 2003), higher academic achievement (CASA; Council of Economic Advisers; Eisenberg, Olson, Neumark-Sztainer, Story, & Bearinger, 2004), better psychological well-being (Council of Economic Advisers, 2000; Eisenberg et al., 2004; Fulkerson et al., 2006, 2009), and a lower risk of substance use and delinquency (CASA; Council of Economic Advisers; Eisenberg et al., 2004; Eisenberg, Neumark-Sztainer, Fulkerson, & Story, 2008; Fisher, Miles, Austin, Camargo, & Colditz, 2007; Fulkerson et al., 2006; Griffin, Botvin, Scheier, Diaz, & Miller, 2000; Sen, 2010). The associations span a range of teen outcomes and appear substantively significant; for example, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that teens who ate fewer than three family dinners per week were about twice as likely to smoke, drink, and get poor grades as compared with teens who ate five to seven family dinners per week (CASA).

Given the strength of these associations and the fact that eating is universal and routine, family meals offer the potential to significantly influence child behavior and development. Indeed, Fiese and Schwartz (2008) maintained that there are "few other collective settings in family life that have this potential across the child's early years into adolescence" (p. 7). Yet much of the literature on family meals is based on point-intime study designs with limited accounting of other aspects of the family environment, and key questions remain unresolved: Are associations between family meals and child well-being causal? Do they persist over time? We address these questions using rich, nationally representative panel data on adolescents, following their mental health, substance use, and delinquency into young adulthood.

Background

There are various arguments for a protective effect of family meals on adolescent mental health and risk taking. Children thrive on routine and stability (Fiese, 2000; Fomby & Cherlin, 2007), and meals are an important part of what organizes a child's daily activities (Fiese et al. …

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