Confucius may have put it most succinctly in observing that “the strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.” Family is the basic building block of society.
To the extent that families are stable, the larger civilization benefits from greater social stability. To the extent that family connections are strong, the members of that family will tend to enjoy stronger social capital and related socioeconomic benefits.
Strong family health is inextricably linked with a network of interrelated and self-perpetuating benefits. For instance, families with two parents are far less likely to live in poverty, and the children of those families are more likely to do well in educational attainment. The data is so stark that it is impossible to honestly examine economic or educational outcomes without considering family structure.
It would be hard to argue that, when it comes to family structure, any other state can outdo Utah. In its new report, The Comforts of Home: Family Life in Utah, the Utah Foundation found that the Beehive State tops the U.S. on multiple structural metrics.
Utah has the nation’s highest proportion of currently married adults in the nation. Utah enjoys a far higher proportion of births to married women compared to the nation at large; in Utah in 2020, 81% of births were to married women, versus 59% nationally. And the share of Utah children in single-parent families is far lower than the national average. As of 2019, only 16% of Utah children lived in such families — the lowest in the nation. Nationally, the proportion was 27%.
But family structure is only part of the picture. What’s happening at home?
Prior to the pandemic, some alarming home life trends were afoot in Utah. Our state languished in the bottom 10 states in reading to young children, and it had been in rapid decline on this metric. This is a big deal. The share of children who are read to everyday indicates the time parents actively spend with their children and the strength of their bond. Furthermore, early attainment of reading can set the pace for the rest of a student’s academic career.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, Utah had also seen an alarming decline in families eating together daily, leading it down to the nation’s 11th worst by 2019. Mealtimes offer an opportunity for families to meet, strengthen relationships, communicate important information and address problems. Children who regularly eat with their parents are more likely to perform well in school. Family meals are also associated with healthier diets and lower obesity rates.
Though recreational electronic device use among Utah youth was below average prior to the pandemic, it had been rising rapidly since 2011. The amount of time spent watching TV and on electronic devices consumes time that children could otherwise spend on in-person social activities, sports and family interactions that expand their social capital. Youths who spend more time on recreational electronic media reportedly have lower grades and lower levels of contentment.
The good news: The pandemic dramatically reversed a couple of these negative trends in family activities. In 2020, Utah saw a promising upswing in reading to young children, moving the state above the national average. Likewise, a big rebound in family meals here outperformed the increase nationally, putting Utah into the top 10.
As for kids on electronic media, the story is less encouraging. With the pandemic, Utah did fall into the lowest-using 10 states nationally. Unfortunately, this was mainly because the increases in youth electronic media use in other states surpassed the increase in Utah. In fact, the increase in Utah in 2020 was significant.
In short, while Utah families may be well-formed, the interactions within those families have for years been of poor and declining quality. Unless Utah maintains its turnaround on family meals and reading — and tamps down screen time — the consequences for children will play out over time and may have negative effects on future family life.
Parents know that electronic devices are posing unprecedented challenges. The addictive nature of social media, video games and other media can make monitoring and control a constant challenge. But there’s only so much time in the day, and families need to work intently to make sure it’s well-spent. That means cutting bigger slices of the time pie for reading and family meals, at the expense of recreational screen time.
Peter Reichard is president of the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find the new report, The Comforts of Home, and other installments in the Utah Social Capital Series at utahfoundation.org.