Should children be allowed screen time while eating?

While it may be an easy way to feed a reluctant eater, screen-distracted eating has adverse implications for dietary habits and parent-child interactions.

By Aruna Raghuram

Should children be allowed screen time while eating?

Revathi’s four-year-old daughter was a picky and reluctant eater when it came to healthy meals. Snacks and junk food were another matter altogether. She would linger over vegetables for so long that Revathi would feel like screaming in frustration. Still, she would urge her daughter patiently to stop playing with the food and finish what was on her plate. A few months ago, Revathi started turning on the cartoon channel on the television at mealtimes to get Mini to eat her veggies. Gradually, it had become a habit, and Mini refused to eat without watching television.

It is a common sight in many households – children watching TV while eating. Or, a mother feeding her toddler while he is playing with her mobile or tablet. Many parents resort to some kind of mealtime distraction for their child. The intention could be to get her to stop running around the room, and sit down and eat or to motivate the child to eat larger amounts without resistance. It could also be to distract the child so that he eats certain foods that he doesn’t relish without being aware of what he is eating.

Distracting children in order to get them to eat is not advisable. Eating with distractions prevents children from listening to their bodies and realising when they are still hungry or when they are satiated and full.

Well-known parenting expert and author Dr. Laura Markham says: “First, research has shown that feeding children is a bad idea. As soon as they are able, they should be encouraged to serve and eat by themselves. When they say they are done don’t try to force them to eat more. Give them a variety of nutritious choices and help them develop a healthy relationship with food. They will learn to eat when they are hungry. Second, never allow screen time while eating as children will stop being aware of the food they are eating and will not pay attention to bodily cues telling them they are full.”

The downside of excessive screen time – the harmful physical, cognitive, and social impact – is well-known. And if screen time becomes a habit for children at mealtimes, not only does it increase the overall exposure to screens, but it also affects eating behaviour.

Screen time linked to unhealthy eating behaviour
A 2018 study, ‘Clustering and correlates of screen-time and eating behaviours among young children’ published in BMC Public Health, found that screen time was linked with unhealthy dietary behaviour among young children. It found that in the case of five and six-year-olds, screen time is linked with low fruit and vegetable consumption and high intake of unhealthy snacks such as chips, biscuits and chocolate. The study also observed that parents are the role models for their children and can influence their children to adopt healthy behaviours.

It is also likely that screen time during mealtimes leads to increased snacking later. This is because screen distractions make a child less conscious of eating. Later, he is unable to remember what or how much he has eaten and tends to snack. In fact, paying attention while eating will prevent snacking later and may help with controlling appetite.

Family meals are the time for interaction
With both parents working these days, it is tough to find the time to talk, interact and bond as a family. Mealtimes offer this opportunity, provided family members are not hooked to their mobile phones or their favourite TV show.

Eating together without distractions and focussing only on food and conversation helps children feel that they belong to a loving family and gives them a sense of security. According to a 2015 Canadian review, eating frequent family meals together is associated with better psychosocial outcomes for children. There is also a positive relationship between eating together as a family and increased self-esteem among children and better academic performance.

EXPERT TAKE
ParentCircle interacted with two experts to get their inputs on the subject. They are paediatric dietician Anuja Agarwala and psychologist Aarti Rajaratnam. This is what they had to say:
Anuja: "Feeding children below five years of age could be a very difficult and time-consuming task. Therefore, mothers may find it easy to feed them in front of a screen. But this should be avoided. Screen time – watching television or playing on a tablet while eating – adversely impacts the development of normal eating habits in a natural interactive environment.

"Moreover, screen time while eating increases children’s risk of obesity as they tend to eat more while they are watching TV. This is because they would be less aware of how much they are eating. Also, food advertisements targeted at children are often for products high in sugar, salt, and fats (like sugary breakfast cereals, soft drinks, chips and other unhealthy snacks and processed food). Watching such commercials makes children crave junk food even when they are not hungry and motivates them to make unhealthy food choices at other times as well.

"Therefore, parents should switch off the TV during meals. Mealtime should be transformed into family time with all the members enjoying the food and interacting with each other as well."

Aarti: "Existing evidence points towards the negative impact of screen time in general. It causes delay in language development, impaired social skills, poor emotional regulation, and less than optimal academic performance. In fact, gadgets hamper learning by limiting sensory experiences.

"Parents should make sure children have opportunities to play outdoors. This helps them work up an appetite. A child who is hungry is more likely to eat a meal without a gadget. When a child is offered poorly balanced meals that do not digest easily, the need to use a screen in an attempt to finish what is served becomes higher.

"Our role as parents is to help children be aware of their needs through play, a healthy lifestyle and balanced meals. We should also create healthy play routines for them which not only affect their metabolism but also lead to a well-rounded skill set that can thrive in the absence of screens. And most importantly, we need to serve as role models who have varied skills, hobbies and habits that they can emulate."

WHAT PARENTS CAN DO

Practise what you preach: While you are trying to get your child to not watch TV while eating, make sure, first of all, that you are not distracted by your mobile phone or laptop. The entire family must follow the same rule – no meals with screens.

Remove screens from the dining area: Do not keep your television in the dining area. Also, do not bring laptops and mobile phones to the table when you sit down to eat. This rule should be mutually agreed upon by all family members. In fact, you could put your child in charge of monitoring this rule to make sure it is adhered to. Not only will this ensure he complies with the rule, but it will also make him feel empowered.

Give your child your full attention: Keep talking and listening to your child and emphasise that mealtimes are only about food – and some family conversation.

Make mealtime interesting: Spend mealtimes sharing experiences, discussing topics and making plans for shared activities. This way, there will be no need for screens to provide entertainment and distraction.

Set a meal structure: Plan three major meals and two snacks every day at the same time. If children get into the habit of eating regular meals at fixed times, they will be less fussy around mealtimes. Babies and toddlers may require to eat more frequently.

Ensure your child is hungry: See that your child is hungry but at the same time not starving, which will make him irritable at mealtimes. See that he has not snacked around mealtime. If he is feeling hungry, he is less likely to need distractions to eat.

Include favourite dishes: See that the menu includes at least one of your child’s favourites which he will eat without a fuss.

Stock up on healthy foods: If you want to promote healthy eating without screens, keep only healthy foods and snacks in the house – fruits, vegetables, nuts, fruit yogurt, among others.

Get your child to enjoy food: Involve your child in planning the meals, shopping for grocery, and helping in preparing meals – whether it is rolling out chapathis or mixing the cake batter. This will make him appreciate food.

Don’t pressurise your child: Make feeding/eating a relaxed affair by not insisting that a certain quantity has to be consumed. Putting less pressure at mealtimes will ensure your child listens to his bodily signals and develops good eating habits.

How to wean your child from screen time during meals

What should parents do if their child is already addicted to viewing a screen while eating? Some experts recommend going cold turkey, but if you think this will be too hard on your child or yourself, make incremental changes. You could begin by giving your child a small snack without TV which would take her five to 10 minutes to finish. Gradually, you could move to the major meals without screen time. Start with a screen-free meal every alternate day, before you eliminate screens at mealtimes completely.
You should also have an age-appropriate conversation with your child about the negative effects of screens – the impact on the brain and other adverse physical effects. Also, explain to your child that he will never be able to sense hunger cues if he is absorbed in watching a screen while eating. Come to a mutual decision that you will allow him some screen time after he finishes eating. Gradually, this inducement could be phased out and replaced with a favourite activity. Being consistent is the key.

Finally, you can effectively manage your child’s diet, activity levels, screen exposure, and overall health, one step at a time. Apart from gradually weaning him away from screen time during meals, plan frequent family meals coupled with lots of interaction, and outdoor activities (such as a walk to the park or a bike ride) so that your child’s interest in screen-based activities is reduced.

In a nutshell

  • Allowing children screen time while eating increases the overall exposure to screens
  • It also promotes unhealthy food choices and snacking
  • Screen distractions at mealtimes reduce the quality of family interactions and bonding

What you could do right away

  • Do not keep your television in the eating area or bring phones and laptops to the dining table
  • Engage with your child during mealtimes in an interesting manner so that there is no need for screens
  • Make mealtimes a happy, relaxed affair and do not force your child to eat.

About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 2 November 2019.
Aruna Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a consultant with ParentCircle.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 15 November 2019. 
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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