The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Family Time Good for Teens

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Meal times, homework, doing housework, exploring the great outdoors—what kinds of activities are parents and teens most likely to do together, and which are most beneficial for teens? That spending time with parents is good for teens is an undisputed fact, but also important is discovering the kinds of activities families engage in that are, for whatever reason, most valuable in strengthening adolescents’ sense of well-being. In a recent study, Shira Offer of Bar-Ilan University in Israel seeks to discover what kinds of family time are most strongly associated with teens’ feelings of positive well-being.

Specifically, Offer studies the frequency with which teens and parents spend time together, the types of activities they engage in, the impact this time spent has on teens’ well-being, the relationship between the type of activity and reported well-being, and “contextual and demographic characteristics” associated with the time spent together. To conduct her study, Offer gleans data from the Sloan 500 Family Study, a nonrandom sample of families from eight urban and suburban communities in 1999 and 2000. Respondents were “predominantly non-Hispanic White, middle-class, two-parent families, in which most parents have a college degree, hold professional or managerial positions, and earn incomes above the national average for married parents in the United States.” Teens (ages 11-18) participated in the study by completing a survey and then keeping a time diary using the ESM, a method that uses alarms to signal teens to report on their activity at various times throughout the day. Offer was left with a sample of 237 teens and 8,122 beeps.

In the study, Offer coded and measured first for who (if anyone) the teen was with when beeped: mother only, father only, or both parents. Second, the researcher coded the responses on activity to create four basic activity types: productive time (“school-related activities”), maintenance time (“routine activities done for the maintenance of self and family”), mealtime, and leisure time. Also noted were whether the teens were at home or elsewhere, whether the activity was on a weekend, and the sex of the respondent. Offer measured teens’ reported levels of positive affect, engagement, negative affect, and stress.

Offer used hierarchical linear modeling to analyze the different variables. She concluded that “overall, respondents spent nearly 17% of their time in the company of their parents,” either together or one at a time. Furthermore, “[t]he beep-level results show that the largest share of family time was spent on leisure activities (43.3%, 33.3%, and 37.5% of the beeps with mother only, father only, and both parents, respectively).”

In her discussion, Offer notes the activities that are particularly associated with teen well-being. She reports that, consistent with previous study findings, “The adolescents in this study reported greater positive affect and engagement and lower stress when they ate meals with, as opposed to without, both parents.” But while these results held steady for eating meals with the father only, meals with the mother only “had a more limited association with well-being in that it was correlated only with engagement.” Family leisure time was also associated with more positive teen well-being.

Furthermore, although “maintenance time was not necessarily a negative experience for teens,” this time was, in fact, associated with lower well-being. Offer cites previous research and speculates that the demanding nature of schoolwork and school-related activities may place pressure on teens, who acutely feel parental pressure to succeed at such activities.

Offer closes by reporting several limitations of her study, the most serious of which is the nature of self-report and the probability of selection effect. Nonetheless, this study provides valuable insight into the nature of family time. Perhaps most interesting, Offer reports that the majority of family time was spent within the home, underscoring the centrality of the home to family stability.

(Shira Offer, “Family Time Activities and Adolescents’ Emotional Well-being,” Journal of Marriage and Family 75 [February 2013]; 26-41.)