First published Spring 2019


 

Why screens have been banned at Catherine Morgan’s dinner table — to the delight of her sons

 

Recently, sitting in a restaurant not quite minding my own business, I watched a man completely disregard his teenage lunch companion in favour of whatever — or whoever — was on his phone. A few tables down, two young children sat quietly with their iPads whilst their parents enjoyed a peaceful, drama-free meal. 

We are living in a digital age and smartphones and technology are undoubtedly here to stay; but sitting at my own table, looking down at my mobile phone, I wondered when it had become acceptable to bring our tech to the dinner table. Of course, there may have been a valid reason for the man to be on his phone, and I can certainly relate to the challenges of dining with young, exuberant children. But are we paying a price for these uninvited dinner guests?    

Although we are able to connect to the wider world in one click or swipe, we are often left disconnected from those sitting right in front of us. It’s not surprising that people who use their devices while out for dinner with friends and family have been shown to enjoy themselves less than those who don’t.1

Many parents are facing a daily tech battle, too. According to a 2016 survey of 2,000 UK respondents by pasta sauce brand Dolmio®, 67 per cent of family arguments at the table stem from technology.2 More than half (54 per cent) of the parents surveyed said that technology at mealtimes has a negative impact, and one in three households has tried unsuccessfully to ban it when eating. On average, more than two family dinners per family are interrupted by technology distractions every week, and one in three (35 per cent) says that it happens at least three nights a week.

If real life is interesting children are less likely to miss the entertainment provided by their phone [or] screen

Consultant clinical psychologist Nihara Krause agrees that technology and meal times aren’t a good mix. “Interacting with technology at the dinner table means you are disengaged,” she says. “This means you not only miss out on being with whoever is there but also miss out on learning important social skills such as listening, sharing, expressing and turn taking.”

Krause also points out that smartphones create a distraction and take focus away from eating. “Eating mindfully is important in terms of learning self-regulation and also in terms of enjoyment,” she says. 

So what should we do? According to Krause, parents need to establish boundaries — that means making clear rules about not having phone/technology/watching Netflix etc., whilst eating together. She advises no phones or screens at the dinner table, and adhering to specified meal times (i.e. no delaying them just to accommodate the ending of a video game). To establish consistency, these rules should also be maintained by whoever looks after the child.

But it’s not all about strict rules and restrictions. Making dinner times interesting is equally important, so involve children in cooking and preparation, and have interesting things to talk about. “Use the time to share information,” says Krause. “Many adults often recount dinner times being painful since it was the time they would be picked up on their faults [or] mistakes — this is completely unhelpful since not only will children want to disengage from being nagged/told off but they will also associate eating with negative emotions — unhelpful and often a factor associated in eating disorders.

“If real life is interesting, children are less likely to miss the entertainment provided by their phone [or] screen.” 

Engaging without screens also helps parents pick up on early warning signs that otherwise might be masked. 

Of course, parents need to lead by example, too. “If a parent is distracted, disengaged and involved in checking their phone for email or on social media this coveys a far more powerful message than a verbal one,” says Krause. “In addition, children can feel side-lined and less important. Young children as onlookers are more likely to copy such behaviour seeing it as the norm and miss out on parent or sibling connection.” It’s an important point, and one of which I too am guilty. A quick check of my emails, a quick response to a message, a quick look at social media… it all adds up; which is why I banned all phones at the table several months ago, much to the dismay of my partner and the delight of my boys, who take great pleasure in telling their daddy to ditch the device. 

For me, the take-home message is pretty simple: disconnect from the device; re-connect with loved ones.

 

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