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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
Revathi’s 4-year-old daughter Mini was a picky and reluctant eater when it came to healthy meals. 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 became a habit, and now Mini refuses to eat without watching TV!
Children watching TV while eating their meals is a common sight in most homes. Or you may have seen a mother feeding her toddler while he is playing with her mobile phone or tablet. Many parents resort to some kind of mealtime distraction for their children. The intention could be to get the child to stop running around the room and sit down and eat or to motivate him to eat larger amounts without resistance. It could also be to distract the child so that he eats the foods he doesn’t relish without being aware of what he is eating.
Using distractions like TV or phones to get your child to eat is not advisable. Eating with distractions prevents children from listening to their bodies and realizing whether they are still hungry or 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 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 children’s eating behavior.
A 2018 study, ‘Clustering and correlates of screen-time and eating behaviors among young adolescents’ published in BMC Public Health, found a link between screen time and unhealthy dietary behavior among young children. According to the study, in the case of 5- and 6-year-olds, screen time is linked with low fruit and vegetable consumption and a high intake of unhealthy snacks such as chips, biscuits, and chocolates. The study also observed that parents are role models for their children and can influence their children to adopt healthy behaviors.
It’s also likely that screen time during mealtimes leads to increased snacking later. This is because screen distractions make a childless conscious of eating. Later, as he is unable to remember what or how much he has eaten, he tends to snack. Paying attention while eating will prevent snacking later and may help control appetite.
With both parents working these days, it’s tough to find the time to talk, interact, and bond as a family. Mealtimes offer this opportunity, provided family members are not hooked on their mobile phones or favorite TV show.
Eating together without distractions and focusing only on food and conversation can help children feel that they belong to a loving family while giving 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’s also a positive relationship between eating together as a family and increased self-esteem among children and better academic performance.
ParentCircle spoke to two experts to get their input on screen use during meals. They are pediatric dietician Anuja Agarwala and psychologist Aarti Rajaratnam. This is what they had to say:
Anuja Agarwala: “Feeding children below 5 years of age could be a challenging and time-consuming task. Therefore, mothers may find it easy to feed them in front of a screen. But it’s best to avoid this practice. Screen time—watching TV 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 foods). 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. Transform mealtime into family time with all the members enjoying the food and interacting with each other.”
Aarti Rajaratnam: “Existing evidence points toward the negative impact of screen time in general. It causes a 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 hungry child 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 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 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 a TV; this would take him 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 of screens on the brain and other adverse physical effects. Also, explain to your child that he will never 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 favorite 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.
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