Family dinners & dining out

Should I Let My Child Quietly Use His Phone at the Dinner Table?

By Child Mind Institute, Understood Founding Partner

My child often wants to bring his cell phone or tablet to the dinner table. Should I care?

Yes, you should. More and more we are all—children, teens and adults—leading fragmented, tech-centered lives. It’s rare that a family sits down to breakfast or even eats dinner together every night. So family meals are not just about eating. They’re often the only time you’re all in one place.

No matter how old your child is, it’s important to take advantage of that precious time when you have it.

Use family mealtime to:

  • Find out what’s going on in your child’s academic and social life
  • Fill your child in on family news and ask for his opinions and input
  • Encourage conversation and self-expression
  • Share your values with your child
  • Be a consistent and stabilizing presence in your child’s life

Allowing children (or adults for that matter) to be distracted by electronic gadgets during dinner is bad manners, for sure. But more than that, it’s a bad habit that can interfere with your child’s healthy social and emotional development.

Young Kids

Many parents find it’s just easier to give young kids their phone or tablet to play with as a way of keeping them contented and quiet at the table, particularly if they’re dining out at a restaurant and parents want to have a relaxing time. Kids love it and easily get hooked on games and gadgets.

It might give you a break in the short term. But in the long run, your kid is missing out on learning important social skills that come from interacting with people instead of screens. This is particularly important for younger kids or those who are having trouble making friends. Meals are the perfect time to practice listening, paying attention to the person who’s speaking and taking turns.

Here’s something you may not realize. When you let your kid zone out with a gadget, you’re sending him the message that it’s OK to be cut off from the conversation around him. In fact, you’re encouraging that message. Instead:

  • You want to set the precedent that your family is open and talks to each other.
  • You want to share the good parts of your day as well as the bad (without burdening children with grown-up problems).
  • You want to encourage kids to share the “best” and “worst” parts of their day (rather than just asking, “How was school today?” which is likely to get you a one-word response).
  • You want your child to feel as safe as possible sharing whatever is on his mind—questions he has, a social problem he’s struggling with, some new interest he’s developed.

Setting this precedent is good for kids now and helps them be more likely to come to you when they’re older, too. If you’re consistent about having these conversations at mealtime, you’re more likely to find out when a problem starts to arise and be able to do something about it before it becomes too serious.

Older Kids

For older kids, it’s even more important that you stay involved in your child’s life. It’s a natural part of growing up to assert independence and pull away from parents. But teens are still kids and they still need to be connected to you, not just their peers. They’re relying on you even though they might not realize it.

It can be nearly impossible to unplug a teenager from technology. These days it bleeds into almost every aspect of their lives and, with social media and multiple devices, teens today can seem isolated in their own world.

Don’t let your kid get sucked into a world of 24/7 communication with their friends online. Whether they know it or not (or agree or not), they need the chance to unplug and get a reality check from their families. It’s up to you to set the rules.

Developmentally, teens benefit when the dinner table is a tech-free zone:

  • Even though they’re teenagers, they still need the opportunity to practice their social skills.
  • They need unplugged time to form independent opinions and discuss them.
  • They need you to act as a sounding board about everything from current events to what their peers are doing (drinking? smoking?) and how they feel about it.
  • And, as with younger kids, if you have an established habit of talking openly, they’ll be more likely to come to you when they’re in over their heads and need help.

No-Tech-at-Table: Gaining Momentum

American parents seem to be getting fed up with the way technology has affected their families. According to a recent “Tech Timeout” survey conducted by Harris Interactive:

  • 61% of people surveyed agreed that the overuse of technology has had a negative impact on family life.
  • 77% of parents believe their family would benefit from taking a one hour break every day from technology.
  • 56% of US residents find others’ use of electronic devices during family mealtimes at least somewhat annoying.
  • Nearly half (47%) of U.S. parents would like to ban the use of technology during family holidays entirely.

Why Parents Need to Follow the Rules, Too

Parents who are glued to their phones or who obsessively check their email are bad role models for children and teenagers.

We all know how hard it can be to ignore what seems like an important work email. But whether your kid is 6 months old, 6 years old or 16 years old, he knows when you’re truly engaged and paying attention.

Multitasking doesn’t work when it comes to kids and technology. If you think your kid doesn’t notice you stealing glances at your phone or texting during his soccer game, or while you’re helping with homework, you’re wrong. So put your phone away and your kid will understand why you’re asking him to do the same.

About the Author

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Child Mind Institute, Understood Founding Partner

The Child Mind Institute is dedicated to transforming mental health care for children everywhere.

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