PARENTS

Are Smartphones And Tablets Killing Your Family Meal Times?

03/10/2014 12:36 | Updated 20 May 2015

boy kid child eating corn flakes breakfast playing mobile phone

It is a ritual in families across the land to ask at the dinner table (whether you're interested in the answer or not): "How was your day today?"

In a family like ours – mum, dad, three kids, aged 12, 10 and seven – it is a particularly pertinent time to ask that question because we are two weeks into the new school year and goals are being set and tasks assigned.

"How's your new teacher?" I asked the oldest.

"Grunt."

"What do you think of learning to play the trombone (seriously!)," I asked the middle child.

"S'ok."

"Any new kids in your class this year?" I asked the youngest.

"Dunno."

Now I don't expect sparkling wit and repartee to compare with Stephen Fry over fish fingers, chips and peas, but a bit more interaction would be welcome.

Sometimes I feel like Andrew Marr interviewing a politician: making all the effort but getting nothing back.

But at least when obfuscating Cabinet ministers go on his Sunday morning show, they at least look Mr Marr in the eye: they don't spend their entire time fiddling around with gadgets!

Ping! goes the stepdaughter's smartphone, with a message from the friend she spoke to not 10 minutes ago.

Zing! goes the middle son's Nintendo DS, as Super Mario hits whatever on-screen target he aimed at via the wonder of technology.

Fling! goes the youngest's iPod as he chucks an Angry Bird at a wall of virtual bricks.

It's like living in an amusement arcade, where children are totally transfixed by the light 'n' colour shows before them, oblivious to the rest of the world, let alone their father's tedious inquiries about their days.

How did it come to this? I am usually very strict about such things, ensuring the kids wash their hands before sitting down, forcing them to wait for the slowest to clear their plate before racing away from the table to avoid loading the dishwasher.

But technology has become so normalised in every aspect of our lives that I barely notice it's there.

I hardly blink when I say 'Good morning' to my boys in their pyjamas and see them playing World Cup Xbox in their room.

I don't raise an eyebrow when the stepdaughter texts 'Morning' to her pals before she's stirred from her pit.

And because I've got a gazillion other things to worry about, I don't get on their cases about that.

But at mealtimes, it's starting to grate.

I don't expect a round of applause for the food I cook, nor even a reciprocated 'How was YOUR day, Dad?' (Answer: How long have you got? It was Groundhog Booooooooooooooooooooooring. Again.')

But I would at least like them to look at me, look at each other, even LOOK AT THEIR PLATES as they shovel peas in the direction of their mouths, which then end up all over the floor, instead of the hand-held tablets of entertainment they have become obsessed with.

I take some comfort in my shoddy, lacklustre parenting skills from a new survey that found that around 11.4 million tech devices – such as smartphones and tablets to laptops and MP3 players – are brought to family meals.

And the impact of that, according to the research by Mexican food brand Old El Paso, is that, for one in five, families dinner has become a functional and rushed affair.

Parenting expert Liz Fraser said, "Technology has been in family homes for decades; but mobile tech means it comes with us everywhere we go – and, sadly, that often includes meals.

"Previously nobody would have brought a television to the dinner table, or eaten their breakfast whilst on the phone in the hallway.

"Meal times are absolutely vital for family bonding, developing social skills, and sharing stories of the day.

"Making them a little bit different and fun are great ways to keep everyone's focus in the room and rediscover the pleasure in just spending time with each other."

Three quarters of mums believe that spending meal times together is important for family bonding but 37 per cent find that getting their family fully engaged in the occasion is challenging.

The researchers said: "The effort that goes into preparing dinner, combined with a perceived lack of appetite and interest from the family, leaves two thirds of UK mums feeling both frustrated and upset."

For 'mums' read 'housedads', too!

Liz has some tips on how to encourage the kids to put down their devices at meal times:

• Don't serve any food until the gadgets are put away...and keep this 'no-gadgets' policy throughout the meal time.

• Once at the dinner table, keeping children engaged and interested is important. For example, allowing them to help themselves to fill wraps.

• Engage kids in conversations by asking them the best and worst things about their day, and then let then conversation move in ways that they really enjoy.

• Make sure that dinner is eaten around a table and not in front of the television to instil the idea that dinner and screens don't go together.

• Get children involved in cooking and preparing the food in order to engage them and help them understand the whole dinnertime process.

All sensible advice - if you have the time and energy to cook with your kids every night (think of the mess, the washing up!!)

Thus, I prefer Mary Berry's approach. Speaking to Glamour magazine, the queen of Great British Bake Off said children should be banned from bringing mobile phones and games to the dining room table.

She thinks this would help combat childhood obesity, which is different to my own domestic situation (my kids's gadget addiction means they don't put enough in their mouths to get fat), but her message chimes.

She said she enforced a strict 'Downing Street Rule' in her own home, with visiting children told to hand in their gadgets before dinner.

She said: "The first thing to do is to sit down, and the second is to take every mechanical aid off the table.

"When the children and grandchildren come to see me, they hand in all their games and phones at the door.

"I call it 'the Downing Street rule', because that's what they make you do if you go to Number 10."

So that is the answer: as well as making sure my children wash their hands before sitting down to dinner, I'm also going to ensure they leave their gadgets behind.

Bring on the repartee!

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