How to get your children off their phones at the dinner table

Hand of teenage girl with mobile phone having cornflakes with milk from bowl while sitting by table in front of camera and reading messages
Children who use their smartphone while eating are too distracted to realise when they're full, a new study has found. (Getty Images)

Family mealtimes are usually a great time to get everyone together and talk about your day. But the presence of smartphones and other screens, like televisions, during this time can prove to be distracting - as well as unhealthy, according to a new study.

New research suggests that children who use their smartphones at the dinner table are more prone to obesity as they are too distracted by scrolling to realise when they are full, making them more likely to continue eating absentmindedly.

The study, conducted on 735 primary school-age children, showed that they were 15% more likely to be overweight if they used smartphones regularly while eating breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Dr Ana Duarte Melo, lead researcher of the study, said: "When children are eating and are watching something on a TV or a mobile phone, they don’t understand when they need to stop eating or when they are full.

"They continue to eat and eat just because they are distracted by the screens. This is bad for society and dangerous for children because it is leading to them being overweight or obese."

She warned: "We are so busy now that we don’t have time to sit all together for a family meal. But parents need to know that screen time during mealtimes is a really big problem."

Boy eating spaghetti
Researchers are urging parents to reduce their children's screen time at the dinner table to cut the risk of obesity. (Getty Images)

The study was presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Venice, according to The Times. It comes after a separate study conducted by researchers at the University of Liverpool found that children watching video games on streaming platforms are being exposed to junk food advertising for the majority of the time.

The researchers found that the promotion of products high in sugar, salt or fat to children was leading children to consume more of these unhealthy foods. They warned that such streaming sites are likely contributing to the UK’s obesity problem.

Although the warnings from researchers sound dire, there’s no need to panic if smartphones are a fixture at your dining table. However, you may be wondering about how you can reduce your family’s screen time and encourage more mindful eating and healthier habits.

Matt Buttery, CEO of parenting programme Triple P UK and Ireland, tells Yahoo UK that polling from Triple P has found that 40% of parents are worried about the amount of time children are spending on their devices.

He adds that, while using devices "is an inevitable part of this generation's upbringing", "it can be a barrier to connecting as a family and enjoying in-person experiences".

Keeping mealtimes screen-free give parents and children more opportunities to connect with one another. (Getty Images)
Keeping mealtimes screen-free give parents and children more opportunities to connect with one another. (Getty Images)

"Meal times are great opportunities to connect as a family, and there are a number of ways that parents and carers can encourage them to be a screen-free place," Buttery, who is also an honorary associate professor at the University of Warwick, says.

"Whilst setting limits can be part of this, prioritising this time as a family and making it fun goes a long way.

"Real-life communication helps build strong relationships and create a space where children feel safe and more able to communicate. Creating a routine, where mealtimes are 'family time' and everyone sitting around the table actively listens and shares stories and news about their days encourages children to open up and create a closeness as a family, as well as being an opportunity to teach important social skills."

Triple P's polling found that 88% of parents want to cut down on their children's screen time, which shows this is a priority for many parents. Leading by example is a great way to start reducing screen time at the dinner table, Buttery says.

"Having an open conversation about the benefits of meals together - without technology - and modelling those behaviours parents wish to see themselves can help reduce the chance of resistance or conflict," he explains.

It may also help to be open about your own experiences and how putting your phone away has benefitted you.

Parents should talk about the benefits of putting their phones away with their children. (Getty Images)
Parents should talk about the benefits of putting their phones away with their children. (Getty Images)

"Sharing personal experiences and how [parents] feel they benefit from this shared time, whether that's learning more about each other or feeling closer and more connected, if parents and carers talk about the benefits of switching off from devices and switching on to their family, children will see what they are gaining rather than what they are missing."

Buttery adds that, while parents and carers should focus on getting children to make their own choice to put their devices away, "sometimes they need some encouragement to understand that, at times, they have to compromise and that is easier if the compromise also benefits them".

The researchers who presented their study on the link between using smartphones while eating and a heightened risk of obesity urged parents to teach children how to eat more mindfully.

This is important as children will be better able to determine when they are full, the flavours and textures of what they are eating, and how they feel while they eat - without the distraction of a screen.

Buttery says there are a number of ways parents can encourage children to be more mindful and engaged when eating.

"Creating family rules that are inclusive of children’s feelings, tastes and choices will help to create an environment where they feel empowered and supported," he says.

"Of course, new behaviours and skills require time, attention and consistency and parents can lead the way on this by being a role model for good screen-time habits, as well as trying new or different foods and communicating openly about their experiences.

"Making mealtimes more interactive, from getting children to help prepare dinner, to doing the washing up together afterwards, the entire process from start to finish can be used to encourage them to think more about what they are eating, and can also be a valuable tool in reducing screen time."

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