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Using Phones at Restaurants with Kids

I need your attention not your iPhone 


It’s becoming a common sight seeing toddlers and young children staring at smartphones at a restaurant table.


But I’m worried we’re accepting this as “the norm”. That this is just part of modern family life.


It’s becoming accepted practice. And not just at the end of the meal when the children are getting restless.


Passing over a smartphone to placate toddlers and young children is becoming part of the meal ritual at restaurants for some families.  Take your serviette, have a sip of water and then hand over your smartphone or whisk out a tablet. And this saddens and worries me as both a children’s technology researcher and as a mum.

I’m not trying to make you feel guilty


Now before you think that this is an attempt to riddle parents with “techno-guilt” and “techno-shame”, please know that this is not my intention at all.  I simply want us to pause. I want us to consider, as parents, the implications of perpetually dunking young children in our screen-saturated world, especially in social situations.


What happens when we always pass over the digital device to entertain or pacify young children.  What’s the opportunity cost? What do they miss out on? What are the implications on our children’s development?

As I’ve openly disclosed before I’ve relied on the “digital pacifier” too before (and it worked a treat!). So I’m not attempting to make parents feel guilty for handing over a digital device to calm or appease young children.


I simply want to raise awareness. I want us to critically think (even if it makes us feel a tad uncomfortable) about using digital devices all the time at restaurants (and in other social situations where children are easily bored or frustrated).

Where’s the conversation? 


At a nearby table at a restaurant I recently observed a little girl, no older than 15 months, sit in her high-chair and stare at her mum’s iPhone for over an hour!


Her face was illuminated from the glow and her eyes were fixated on the screen. There was an illuminated Ferris wheel and city buildings outside the restaurant window, but she was oblivious to these. She sat there for the entire meal, completely silent. There was no interaction. There was no laughing. There was  just complete silence (apart from Peppa Pig talking).

But this scene terrifies me as a mum and a researcher.

As a parent, I understand how much more enjoyable a meal at a restaurant or cafe would be if children are content and occupied (or digitally distracted). You can actually have a conversation and a meal in peace. As a parent, I miss that too, but that’s why we have date nights…every six months!

But when we rely on digital devices to distract our children, there’s an absence of “serve and return” interaction that little ones need. What’s happening to their taste preferences when their attention is glued to a screen and not their taste buds (HINT- there’s emerging evidence to suggest that children’s taste preferences and palates are possibly changing because of screen-use during meals. More information in my upcoming book.)



Meanwhile, at our table the water has been knocked over (twice), one of our boys has a noodle pressed to his forehead and is attempting to press a noodle to his brother’s head. There have been several pleas by our eldest son to avoid eating the broccoli that’s in his stirfry.  It’s messy.  It’s loud. But this is how it’s meant to be.


They’re interacting. They’re learning important social protocol (no, it’s not appropriate to scream “More water now!” when you’re thirsty). They chatted about the Ferris wheel lights that they noticed outside the restaurant window and asked questions (as 4 year-olds do so well) about how the city buildings were constructed.


Now I’m not suggesting that you’re a “bad” parent for pulling out a smartphone at a restaurant or cafe. That’s certainly not the case. Sometimes it can be the perfect anecdote.


I just want us to think carefully about when and why we’re doing this.


Our kids need our attention and interaction with us at restaurants. They don’t need to (always) be placated or distracted by digital devices. We need to teach children to mindfully and intentionally use technology. We don’t want to teach them to rely on it to entertain them, or appease them when they’re bored or frustrated.


In the comments below, I’d love to know how you feel about screens in restaurants and cafes with children. This isn’t about there being a “right” way to do things.

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I talk to parents throughout Australia about screen-time and how parents can help their children use technology in healthy and helpful ways (and also minimise any potential risks). If you’re interested in having me speak at your pre-school, school local council or community group, Click here to find out more.


I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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