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Students get a new assignment: Eat with your families

THE FILM “SCREENAGERS: The Next Chapter,” which examines the science behind teens’ emotional challenges and social media, will screen at MUHS on Thursday, March 19, after a community dinner designed to highlight the benefits of families eating meals together.

I think there’s an opportunity here to slow down and be more present, by making and eating a meal together.
— Elizabeth Burrows

MIDDLEBURY — Addison Central School District students are being given an assignment that would have seemed totally unnecessary a few generations ago.
Eat dinner with your family.
A simple task that used to be a daily ritual — and still is for some. Families would take time to deconstruct their day, defuse potential crises and dispense helpful advise while breaking bread — and hopefully not a lot of dishes. It’s a tradition that local school officials and youth advocates are now trying to re-instill in area families as a way of improving student health, communication skills and morale, while reducing the distractions of smart phones and other ubiquitous electronic devices.
The ACSD strategy is taking place on three fronts.
•  The “Dinner Together Challenge,” through which students will vie in a friendly competition to see who can have the most family meals between now and April 4. RiseVT — an independent, nonprofit health advocacy organization with roots in Addison County — is providing support for this endeavor. That support will include nifty recipe cards sent home with students each week. Participants are also given a “tracking card” to record their family meals success.
• A “Dinner Together” publicity campaign through which RiseVT hopes to inspire people throughout the county to take time for a family meal each evening.
• A community dinner at Middlebury Union High School at 5:45 p.m. on Thursday, March 19, that will lead into a 6:30 p.m. screening of  “Screenagers: The Next Chapter.” The film examines the science behind teens’ emotional challenges, the interplay of social media, and what can be done in schools and homes to help students build skills to navigate stress, anxiety and depression in the digital age.
The Middlebury-based group Parents Supporting Thoughtful Technology (PSTT) is sponsoring the “Screenagers” event and a discussion session that will follow the film.
It was last May that the Dinner Together campaign started to coalesce, according to RiseVT of Addison County Manager Michele Butler. A major catalyst for the movement was results from the 2017 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey. That survey was created in 1990 to monitor health-risk behaviors among youth that contribute to the leading causes of death, disease, injury and social problems. Students in schools statewide anonymously take the test. The 2017 results for Addison County indicated students who didn’t dine with at least one of their parents at least four days per week were more prone to substance abuse, tobacco use, binge drinking and self-harm.
With that in mind, Butler and school officials began brainstorming on ways to make it easier for families to share a meal together. The ideas included easy, nutritious recipes and involving children in the planning (and shopping) for meals.
“I’m excited about this because anything that helps parents feel that they’re doing right by their children is a wonderful thing,” Butler said. “I think life is more complicated now. It can be little disjointed and crazy. I know parents are looking for resources about how to maneuver around technology and the fact that everyone is so busy. Reminding people of simple things, like just having dinner together, can be really powerful.”
Elizabeth Burrows is the guidance counselor for the Bridport, Shoreham and Weybridge elementary schools. She’s long been a champion of family dining experiences as both an emotional bonding and educational tool.
“There’s a lot of research about stronger family relationships and healthier eating,” Burrows said of family dining experiences. “Kids are twice as likely to get As and Bs. It’s not as much the grades that matter, but the experience of being confident, having interests and being engaged with your learning. There’s also a lot of connections with less substance use, greater happiness and I think more character traits.”
Burrows conceded some folks simply can’t share an evening dinner due to work commitments. So organizers are hoping such families can improvise.
“We’re really trying to frame it around, ‘Make a goal, think about it for your family and what’s possible,’” Burrows said. “If it isn’t over a meal, take 10-15 minutes to connect.”

BEING MORE PRESENT
What if family members are at a loss for conversation? Well, that won’t be a problem if you think about discourse as a flower, according to Burrows. Think of the “rose” as being the highlight of your day, the challenge as being the “thorn” and the bud as being something you’re looking forward to.
“I think there’s an opportunity here to slow down and be more present, by making and eating a meal together,” Burrows said. “We can be so distracted, and that’s why we hope people will have tech-free meals, so that people are looking at and listening to each other. Those moments are so important for kids’ development.”
Amy Mason of Weybridge is a co-founder of PSTT, a grassroots group dedicated to applying “common-sense guidelines” to their children’s use of technology. The nonprofit formed a few years ago, primarily as a support group for parents concerned about the extent to which smart phones and other electronic devices were being used by children. The group has used meager grants and donations to offer sporadic programming, and the upcoming screening of “Screenagers” is PSTT’s biggest accomplishment to date.
“We think it’s important people experiment and experience times when they are not ‘plugged in,’” Mason said.
“It’s all about ‘connection,’” she added, noting the irony of the word “connection” having become more about electronic interface than human interaction.
“Screenagers,” according to the film’s promotional materials, “examines the science behind teens’ emotional challenges, the interplay of social media, and most importantly, what can be done in our schools and homes to help them build crucial skills to navigate stress, anxiety, and depression in our digital age.”
The PSTT’s website (psttvt.org) has a lot of helpful research and advice on how to get youth to pull the chord on their electronics and patch in to activities with their fellow humans. And it doesn’t have to be cold turkey, Mason stressed.
“Part of what we talk about is carving out these oases of tech-free zones of time and/or space,” Mason said. “We’re excited to have people experiment with that in their homes.”
Ultimately, teaming up with the RiseVT and ACSD on promoting family dinners seemed like a natural thing for PSTT to do, according to Mason.
And it also made sense to pick March — national nutrition month — as the best time for people to devour the Dinner Together program.
“I’ve long been a proponent of eating dinners together and I’ve done a lot of community dinners in schools,” Burrows said. “I was so excited when I heard about it, because it’s such a simple but profound thing how many protective factors you can influence by just sitting down and eating.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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