Do family dinners help to fight bullying and drug abuse?

This study is gaining a lot of attention: Cyberbullying Victimization and Mental Health in Adolescents and the Moderating Role of Family Dinners. And the basic idea is simple: “Cyberbullying was associated with mental health and substance use problems in adolescents, a new study shows, but family dinners may help protect teens from the consequences of cyberbullying and also be beneficial for their mental health.” Sounds great, so let’s have meals together, and actually besides this study it’s a great idea that I can only support. But you feel there is a ‘but’ coming…

If you look at the abstract of the study, you’ll probably start to guess what the problem is, Italics by me:

Importance  This study presents evidence that cyberbullying victimization relates to internalizing, externalizing, and substance use problems in adolescents and that the frequency of family dinners attenuate these associations.

Objectives  To examine the unique association between cyberbullying victimization and adolescent mental health (after controlling differences in involvement in traditional, face-to-face bullying) and to explore the potential moderating role of family contact in this association.

Design, Setting, and Participants  This cross-sectional, observational study used survey data on 18 834 students (aged 12-18 years) from 49 schools in a Midwestern US state. Logistic regression analysis tested associations between cyberbullying victimization and the likelihood of mental health and substance use problems. Negative binomial regression analysis tested direct and synergistic contributions of cyberbullying victimization and family dinners on the rates of mental health and substance use problems.

Exposures  Frequency of cyberbullying victimization during the previous 12 months; victimization by traditional (face-to-face) bullying; and perpetration of traditional bullying.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Five internalizing mental health problems (anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide ideation, and suicide attempt), 2 externalizing problems (fighting and vandalism), and 4 substance use problems (frequent alcohol use, frequent binge drinking, prescription drug misuse, and over-the-counter drug misuse).

Results  About one-fifth (18.6%) of the sample experienced cyberbullying during the previous 12 months. The frequency of cyberbullying positively related to all 11 internalizing, externalizing, and substance use problems (odds ratios from 2.6 [95% CI, 1.7-3.8] to 4.5 [95% CI, 3.0-6.6]). However, victimization related more closely to rates of problems in adolescents that had fewer family dinners.

Conclusions and Relevance  Cyberbullying relates to mental health and substance use problems in adolescents, even after their involvement in face-to-face bullying is taken into account. Although correlational, these results suggest that family dinners (ie, family contact and communication) are beneficial to adolescent mental health and may help protect adolescents from the harmful consequences of cyberbullying.

Yep, it’s the correlation-causal relation thing again. Based on this research it’s very difficult to say if kids who have fewer meals together are being bullied more or vice versa. The researchers think meals will help, but can’t actually tell if this is the case based on their findings. Still, try to have meals together, it’s a good advice.

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