The role of family dinners in preventing substance abuse has become a surprisingly fertile field of research, writes Wall Street Journal columnist Carl Bialik. For a decade, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University has reported on the result of asking teenagers about how often they eat dinner with their families, as well as their use of, and attitudes toward, drugs, tobacco and alcohol. The surveys’ consistent finding, that the most frequent family diners are the least frequent drug abusers, has been trumpeted in many news articles touting the benefits of family meals.
The finding was satisfying to family-values advocates and is consistent with common sense. Some researchers were skeptical, wondering if other factors, such as a family’s income or parents’ weekly work hours, accounted for both the frequency of family meals and drug use. Last year, Daniel Miller of the Boston University School of Social Work tapped into a data set to isolate the role of family dinners more precisely and found that family-meal frequency had little or no effect on academic or behavioral results. Using a different federal study of teenagers, Kelly Musick and Ann Meier found that changes in teens’ frequency of family dinners at one time didn’t predict changes in their substance abuse at a later time, after controlling for other changes in the family environment.