Screens seem to be invading our lives. Everywhere we turn, there are screens vying for our attention.
And the dinner table isn’t immune to this screen invasion either.
As adults, our reliance on our smartphones and gadgets has ushered us into completely new ways of parenting. We’re often quickly trying to reply to an email between mouthfuls of food, whilst our toddlers mindlessly shovel food into their mouth twisting their neck so they can still watch the TV from the dinner table (or perhaps we’ve made it easier for them by propping the tablet in front of their dinner plate).
More and more families are having screen-dinners each week. In fact, a study by Pew Research Center found that whilst 88% of adults don’t think it’s appropriate to use the phone during meal-times, 47% of parents said that they or another family member used a mobile device at the dinner table in the last week. In a 2015 poll conducted by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 24% of two-year-old children use technology at the dinner table and by the age of eight, it was nearly 45%.
For many families, it’s not just mobile devices that are taking a seat at the dinner table, but so too do our TVs. The Pew Research Center also found that 34% of families said that the TV was on for all or most dinners.
It seems that our digital reliance is changing how we eat. Meal-times don’t look like they used to and this is a worry…not just for nostalgic reasons (where we reminisce about days gone by where all family members sat around the dinner table discussing their day).
Meal-times matter in families.
Why no tablets at the table?
Now I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with the occasional screen dinner. I confess, we love Mexican and a movie on many a Saturday night (let’s be honest and say it’s most Saturday nights because I’m too pooped to cook!). There’s nothing wrong with occasionally eating in front of the TV (or the iPad, or the digital device of choice). There’s nothing wrong with occasionally having to take an important call at the dinner table.
However, we need to be careful that we’re not always switching on the digital device, or always taking calls, or checking our phones during dinner. We need to think carefully about our definition of ‘important’.
What’s more important: Is it more important to take the call, or have some uninterrupted conversation with our kids?
We need to preserve tech-free zones and times
We need to carve out and preserve times and spaces that are tech-free. We need to establish clear lines of demarcation when it comes to specifying sacred times and places where digital devices simply don’t go.
We’ve become so attached to our screens and gadgets that the lines are blurring when it comes to times and spaces where screens don’t need to go, as the video below demonstrates.
As a mum (and a researcher), I firmly believe that we need to keep meal-times as a sacred time where we unplug from our devices and connect with each other (where we can, most of the time). The dinner table needs to be a sacred place, where we’re not distracted by alerts and notifications. A place where our conversations aren’t truncated or side-tracked because something flashes or vibrates on our device. A dedicated place where we can really connect.
The dinner table should be a place for us to connect, as family members, free from our digital magnets that rob us of our attention.
Our kids are wanting our attention
As parents, we’re constantly fretting about our children’s screen infatuation and obsession, but we often overlook our digital dependence. As adults, many of us are so connected to our devices, that we’re not critically thinking about how our screen habits are impacting on our kids.
And whether we want to admit it (or not) there’s little denying that it’s, in fact, our digital preoccupation that’s having just as much of an impact on our kids, as it is their digital obsession.
Our kids are carving our attention… yet we’re sometimes so digitally distracted that we don’t realise. Our kids are reporting that they feel like they need to compete with our devices to gain our attention.
In fact, a large-scale global study (with over 6 000 participants) by online security company AVG found that 32% of Australian child respondents said their parents spent equal or less time with them than on their devices.
As parents we need to be so careful that our devices aren’t robbing us of our two greatest, (non-renewable) resources: our time and our attention.
A powerful media campaign was designed by Ogilvy Beijing for the Center For Psychological Research to promote awareness about how our screens are acting as digital intruders, especially around meal-times. The images are quite a powerful reminder of how our screens can become digital invaders, especially around meal-times.
We’re wired to connect
We know from research (and no, this isn’t an attempt to make parents feel guilty about their screen habits… none of us benefit from ‘techno-shame’) that the mere presence of phones on the table changes our interactions, as adults. A study by psychologists at the University of Essex found that a phone on the table, even if it’s switched off, makes people feel more disconnected, keeps conversations lighter and more focused on topics of little controversy or consequence because we fear being interrupted. So screens are literally changing the ways that we interact and engage at the table.
In my book, I identify that one of our most fundamental human needs is to form relationships and attachments to others. One of the easiest ways to build relationships and a sense of belonging is through storytelling. Stories bond families together. According to author Gary Chapman in his book, Growing Up Social stories make up the “social glue” in families and help to weave their experiences together. Stories help to root our children in our family’s history and provide a sense of connectedness. And the dinner table is the ideal place where kids can hear and exchange stories.
A favourite story in our house is when Nanny fell in the freezer at the grocery store in an attempt to reach an ice-cream tub hidden at the bottom of the chest freezer. It’s on high rotation at our dinner table and our kids don’t seem to tire of hearing the same (hysterical) story. (Thanks Nanny for providing us with great entertainment value!)
You see, when our kids hear stories the language processing parts of their brains are activated, but so too are the parts of their brain that they’d use if they were experiencing the events first-hand. For example, if they’re hearing about food, their sensory cortex is activated and if they’re hearing about movement, their motor cortex lights up. You see, evolution has literally wired our brains for storytelling.
But opportunities for storytelling and conversation are being displaced by screens.
Whilst conducting research for my book, I was stunned to learn that pediatric nutritionists and dieticians who are reporting that they’re working with increasing numbers of children who are presenting with taste sensitivities and preferences in recent times.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that having the screen on during meal-times may promote mindless eating. Children aren’t truly tasting foods and therefore aren’t developing a full taste repertoire. They’re also more likely to want to eat ‘easy’ foods that don’t require lots of mastication (chewing) when they’re digitally distracted. It seems that screens may actually interfere with the formation of young children’s eating habits and preferences!
Our kids’ sensory systems are being bombarded by a range of sensory stimulus that the online world throws at them. There are sound effects, moving graphics, music, alerts and notifications just to name a few. All of these sensory inputs are impacting on our children’s sensory processing capacities. If there’s too much being projected at our child, or if their sensory processing skills are still developing (which they typically are in young children), it’s like turning on the hose at full speed and expecting a tea-cup to catch it. Their sensory system gets overwhelmed.
This sensory bombardment means that it’s difficult for children, particularly young children who are still developing their taste preferences and palette, to concentrate on the act of eating if their sensory system is being seduced by screens. They simply don’t have the mental bandwidth to focus on eating.
Top tips for keeping devices off the table
// Have a specific landing zone where devices go before it’s time to sit at the table. In our house, phones go on the kitchen bench-top (often for charging) and we try (although we often forget) to switch them to silent. If my husband or I are expecting an urgent call we’ll often keep our phone switched on, but off the table.
// Have specific rules around when and how screens can be used at the dinner table, but also be flexible with the ‘rules’. If someone has a funny photo or video to share on their phone, that might stimulate conversation, then be flexible with the no-screens at the table rule.
Recently in our house, Billy, aged 2, had visited Dad’s building site and had driven the excavator (highlight of his life so far at age 2!) so when his grandparents came over for dinner, he wanted to show them the video and after he did, there was so much conversation. It seemed that the smartphone and video footage he shared, was a great catalyst for discussion.
I guess we need to ask ourselves, will the screen invade or enhance our interactions at the table?
// As adults, we need to remind ourselves that we don’t need to be tethered to our devices 24/7. I think many of us, myself included from time to time, have got trapped into the ‘busy trap’. We’ve convinced ourselves that we need to be contactable all the time. And this is a misnomer. We don’t need to always be in arm’s-reach of our phone, or instantly reply to social media alerts or SMS. We’ve become conditioned to being connected to our devices. It’s okay for us to disconnect. We need to because our children are watching and copying our digital habits.
// Join in the Common Sense Media #devicefreedinners challenge. This challenge helps to remind families of the importance of disconnecting during meal-times.
//Don’t make radical changes instantly. If you’ve allowed screens to creep in and take a seat at the dinner table, you need to make small, gradual changes over time to alter these habits. Don’t expect to make instant or drastic changes. Instead, make changes over time and encourage your child to be involved in the changes and explain your reasoning why you want to make changes.
As parents, we need to put a lid on our and our kids’ screen-time at meal-times. We need to ensure that our kids are interacting with people, not pixels, at the dinner table. This is too important for us to get wrong!
I’m presenting an online video event on 6th September with Simone, a children’s nutritionist, about how to find a healthy balance of time online without the pre-meal techno tantrums or conflict.
In the comments below, I’d love to know if you’ve tried to keep meal-times as tech-free times. What struggles have you experienced? Have you noticed any changes in your children’s eating habits when they’re plugged in?