Screen time at mealtimes – what’s the big deal?
Parents usually resort to using screen time, as it may be the only way a child will sit down and complete a meal. However, this could lead to many potential issues in the long run.
What does research show? The effects of screen time at mealtimes
- When preoccupied with distractions, children go on auto-pilot mode and do not pay attention to the food they are eating. In the long run, they will have trouble listening to their bodies, and are unable to understand what it means to be hungry. Research shows that children who have family meals at least 3 times a week without distractions are more likely to be of normal weight and have healthier eating habits.
- When distracted by a screen, children lose out on social interactions or conversations during meals. Social interaction during mealtimes help create positive associations and feelings with meals and eating. Research shows children who participate in family meals have better self-esteem and less likely to engage in risky behaviours.
5 tips for eliminating screens at meals
- Mealtime routine and structure
The key to this is consistency! Get your child into a routine of starting and ending the meal the same way, at a fixed setting (e.g. kitchen or dining area). For example, wash hands, set the table, sit down, help to serve food. Then after the meal, bring dishes to the sink and clean their hands. This helps them know what to expect at each meal, and what is expected of them.
- Family meals: engage with food at meals
Sit with your child and have your meal too. Children learn best by copying behaviours they see. Talk about the food (e.g. colour, shape, texture), what you are doing with your food and model how to eat the food (e.g. scoop, poke, bite, crunch, pull). Create an enjoyable environment where your child is free to interact with his food, using utensils or his hands. This way they are less likely to need the screen as a distraction.
- Include a preferred or interesting food:
Always ensure there is a familiar and/or preferred food in meal so your child has something to eat. Having a “safe” food will ensure the meal is not too overwhelming.
- Gradual modifications
Adjust your expectations about how long you expect your child to sit at the table without the screen. Aiming for 5 minutes at the start may be good. Then gradually extend the screen-free time to 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, until you are able to fade off the use of a screen. Sometimes this may also mean using music/songs (only audio) instead of the screen.
- No pressure at mealtimes
Let your child learn to self-regulate. Avoid putting any form of pressure on your child. This means no threatening, bribing, negotiating, forcing or using any other means to make your child accept “one (more) bite”.
A vital part of developing self-regulation is that your child should be suitably hungry during mealtimes. This means that meals and snacks should be spaced at least 2-3 hours apart, and your child is not grazing on food through the day.
It is important that you understand if your child’s behaviour is typical for his stage of development. Is it a picky eating phase? Related to frequent illness? Or is there an underlying medical or developmental challenge that is making mealtimes difficult? If you are unsure, the best thing you can do is to seek personalised help early. Our speech therapists at Amazing Speech Therapy will be able to provide you with guidance.