Pizza Express, Cheltenham branch. Lunchtime, any given Saturday. This should be a scene of cheerful anarchy. Children should be jousting with breadsticks, rutting the salt-cellars with plastic dinosaurs, interrupting their parents, irrevocably staining their clothes and suddenly needing the loo just as the starters arrive. Essentially, it should feel like a circus with refreshments.
Instead, though the restaurant is packed with families, there's silence. After six years soundtracked by thin, reedy shrieks, you might imagine I'd embrace this. I don't. It's eerie, like a deleted scene from Children of the Corn.
The cause is clear. At the tables all around us, children's glazed faces are lit by tablet screens. Inanimate bar a flicker of frustration when an Angry Bird overshoots its target, interacting with their parents in grunts and shrugs, this is a family enjoying lunch together in its loosest, most depressing sense.
In this context, my own kids – scribbling away on colouring sheets with standard-issue Pizza Express crayons – look quaint and anachronistic, one evolutionary step from cloth-capped Victorian urchins playing with peg dolls. Maybe so, but I'm still convinced they're getting the better deal.
This is the age of the tablet. These are boom times for Apple's iPad, Google's Nexus and Amazon's Kindle Fire (and the endless variants thereof). According to a spokesman for parent company Dixons, there were days on the run-up to last year's so-called 'tablet Christmas' when PC World and Currys were shifting one every second. Faced with those kind of numbers, you suspect that resistance is futile.
You may well own one. I certainly do. I'm terrified of my kids growing up as a fingers-and-thumbs techno-cretin like myself, and recognise there are apps out there – try Doodlecast or Maily – that tickle our kids' synapses while easing them into the gleaming, tech-centric, unavoidable future-world that's waiting for them. Even at the more frivolous end of the scale, Fruit Ninja is probably no less brainless than Rastamouse and, I think, a fair enough reward when they've stopped flicking peas long enough to fill up a sticker chart.
I'm not militantly anti-Pad, then. But, please God, not at mealtimes.
Listen, I'm a realist.
You've got waiters who say they'll give you "just another minute", then disappear for 10. You've got spillages, boredom, hunger and toilet trips. You've got the terse childless couple shooting daggers from the next table.
The temptation to defuse the tantrum timebomb – or at least put more time on the clock – with an iPad can be overwhelming, just as it's so easy to bolt DVD screens to the headrests and roll Peppa Pig to stop them screaming around the M25.
But I reckon we've got to fight against the easy option. As work's tentacles encroach on our family time (tentacles facilitated, it has to be said, by on-the-move access to emails), our mealtimes are becoming one of the few isolated chances to really connect with our kids. You know, the old-fashioned stuff: talking to them, listening to them, asking about the school cake sale, humouring their daft little stories punctuated by endless "ums" and "ers". Strengthening your family's foundations for the buffeting to come.
We're also helping them to build character. If I had sat down at the family table as a child and tried jabbing away at the early-'80s equivalent of an iPad – the Texas Instruments Little Professor, let's say, or Nintendo's Snoopy Tennis – I'd have been clipped around the ear and told to join in the conversation.
As a result, some of my happiest childhood memories are of laughing like drains over a meal, and decades later, I've come to view the dinner table as the best social setting to find yourself as an adult, better than any bar or nightclub. Jokes, flirtation, banter, satire, politics, culture, surrealism, all shooting around like pinballs between the breadbaskets.
I'd love my kids to grow up with the same mentality, but scanning around Pizza Express, I can't help feeling we're grooming a generation who, in adulthood, will sit chewing the cud like cattle, having fast-tracked into those depressing late-middle-aged couples you see sat opposite each other in stony silence.
Maybe those couples could use an iPad. But surely our kids shouldn't already be so bored with their family unit that they need external stimulus. That's my position on the iPad, anyway. I'd love to hear what you think below.
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