The verdict on TV at mealtimes.
Tune in, parents and children. Finally, a verdict on the modern conundrum of television during mealtimes
Is there any more fiercely fought battle between adults and children than whether the television should be on or off during dinner time?
I have to declare an interest here. Even though I work in telly, before doing my research for this column I was definitely in the “TV off, devices down” camp. Things, however, are not as simple as this old-school stance might have us believe. The big question is what impact having the telly on during the meal has.
A 2011 study into the eating habits of preschool children in the Hunter region of New South Wales found a correlation between lower fruit and veg consumption and increased TV watching at mealtimes. So maybe we should turn the TV off during meals.
However, before you do, note that the research also found parents eating fruit and veg in front of the kids, and fruit and veg being readily available, had more impact on young kids’ fruit and veg consumption than turning off the telly. So maybe leaving the TV on isn’t the worst of our worries at mealtimes when it comes to encouraging healthy eating.
A big concern about eating while watching the telly is the suspicion that it will reduce mindfulness, and thus we will not be aware of how much we are eating. This is something that came starkly into focus in a study of students from University of MassachusettsAmherst published in Physiology & Behaviour a decade ago. Researchers found that their subjects ate 36 per cent more pizza and 71 per cent more mac ’n’ cheese (!) when watching TV, compared to when they ate listening to classical music. Specifically, they tested Rachmaninov’s second symphony, which was chosen as it builds to a crescendo like most TV shows do. So perhaps do turn the telly off.
On the other hand, a 2017 report (de Zepetnek et al) revealed watching TV or using a computer before dinner had no such impact on how much pizza nine to 14-year-old girls ate (even though video game playing before dinner made the girls more angry and frustrated during mealtimes). So maybe it’s OK to leave the TV on.
While most parents will tell you that the presence of Peppa Pig might be a welcome and harmless distraction for younger kids, the impact on adolescents of having the telly on during mealtimes seems more complex.
When Danielle Gallegos and her colleagues surveyed adolescents in WA in 2010 about their family meals, they found that the TV might have been on in 61.3 per cent of households surveyed but that less than three quarters of adolescents were actually watching it and about 80 per cent of them talked during the meal even if the TV was on. This makes me wonder whether the TV might help by providing conversation prompters for parents with recalcitrant teens; certainly that’s something I’ve noticed in my house when I come home to find The Project on. So maybe leave the telly on?
However, it also seems that the lower the education level reached by the parent, the more likely it is they watch TV during family meals. So, maybe turn it off for fear that the neighbours will think you’re common.
Of course, in the end, the only research you can do that matters is what you note with your own family. I think the dining table should be a place of engagement for all the family, and regardless of all this conflicting data, in my house the TV is still usually off during family mealtimes at the table. I think you get better conversation, a better connection and the kids appreciate the food more. But then, maybe that’s just me… Or, even more likely, these are my father’s rules surfacing in me.
All the rules go out the window if my team is playing, though. In my house, I’m the spoilt child who gets his way.