Is it OK to let kids use a phone or screen at dinner?

By Kristin J. Carothers, PhD

Question:

Is it OK to let my child play on a tablet during dinner?

Answer:

Great question. My answer depends partly on who else is at dinner.

Some families eat dinner together around a table. Other families eat dinner whenever and wherever each family member can grab it. Adults may be at work. Siblings may be at sports practice. For older kids who are home alone, a screen may be good company if they’re eating by themselves.

My advice is whenever you can eat dinner together, try to put the screens away.

Explain that talking at dinner can help strengthen family ties. Use the time to find out what’s going on in each other’s lives. Ask your child something specific about school. Tell your child about a project you’re working on and ask for ideas on how to make it better.

Family dinners can help you bond with your child. But don’t try to dive in and banish screens at dinner for the rest of eternity.

Instead, I suggest starting low and going slow. Begin by having a conversation at a family meeting. Say that you’ve noticed everyone is on their screens at dinner and that as a family you don’t have enough time to talk to each other.

Start by picking one night each week to have a device-free dinner. Celebrate afterwards by doing something fun together, like playing a game.

Come up with guidelines about screen time, and tell your child why you’re putting these rules in place. Talk about exceptions to these rules, too.

Let’s say your child has a hard time sitting still and is fidgeting at a restaurant or at a holiday meal with family. That’s a time when it might be OK to use a screen at dinner, or to take a short “screen break” away from the table.

It’s not easy to change screen time habits. That makes it all the more important for adults to practice what we preach. If we’re telling our kids not to look at screens during dinner, we need to put our devices away.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Kristin J. Carothers, PhD is a clinical child psychologist devoted to the destigmatization of mental health problems.