Christmas may be over but the effects of its gifts still linger – and not always in a positive way.
According to new research by Disney Club Penguin, four out of five parents bought their children an internet-enabled device for a Christmas present. And, as a predictable result, another survey by GrowingUpMilkInfo.com shows more than a third of toddlers (36 per cent) watch TV or a DVD at the dinner table, 28 per cent use iPads, 24 per cent use smartphones and 12 per cent opt for hand-held games.
It is perhaps easy to see why these figures are so high – tantrums (38 per cent) and boredom (35 per cent) are the main reasons most mums and dads turn to technology during mealtimes. Three-quarters admit using technology to persuade their child to finish a meal.
But being understandable doesn’t make the facts any less sad, or, more worryingly, damaging to a toddler’s social and emotional development.
“Mealtimes with toddlers can be frustrating and boring,” says child psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer.
“But if parents don’t invest the time in getting it right early with communication, manners, nutrition etc, it will be so much more difficult later, and important social skills, emotional development and attachment will suffer.”
She adds the problem is often compounded by parents reaching for technology at the table themselves.
“Technology shouldn’t feature during family meals and parents need to understand what’s at stake when they’re ignoring their children and answering texts or emails during mealtimes,” she stresses.
“Parents are role models and they’re fighting a losing battle if they want their children to put down tech at mealtimes when they’re using it themselves.”
With this in mind, you might think a total TV and tech ban must be the way to get the most out of mealtimes, but Dr Gummer, founder of goodtoyguide.com, says it probably isn’t the best solution.
“Like most things, it’s about a sensible balance,” she says.
“Full-on bans generally don’t work and can make the forbidden fruit more appealing – and the tantrum more entrenched, at least initially.
“But there are simple things parents can do to manage mealtimes effectively, and give children good role models and clear boundaries about mealtime behaviour without making it too much like hard work.”
She suggests that a ‘treaty’ tea in front of a film once a week can be something children look forward to, acting as a reward for eating nicely at the table without tech the rest of the week.
Parents should also choose to eat certain meals with their children when parents model the behaviour they want to see in their children. She points out it’s not necessary at every meal, especially if it feels too stressful, but it is important to try as often as you can.
“When you do eat with the children, be aware that they’ll see what you do as normal and acceptable so they’ll get confused and frustrated if you’re watching TV or using your phone or tablet but won’t let them.”
To keep up interest levels in the absence of the usual TV or tablet, Dr Gummer suggests talking to children about the taste, texture and look of the food on their plate.
“Make it more interesting for them. Children who eat without registering the food – those who are given tech as a distraction to get them to eat their veggies – are likely to eat more out of habit.”
This means they won’t be paying attention to the eating process and won’t register when they are full, eventually putting them at a higher risk of obesity.
Another trick to keep them entertained, and to make sure they still associate mealtimes with fun, is playing ‘non-tech’ games.
“Play ‘I spy’, or make up stories and memory games,” suggests Dr Gummer.
“They’ll engage a child during a meal without the need for tech at the table.”
Once the meal is over, and if the children have eaten properly, Dr Gummer says it’s then fine to use tech play as a reward, letting them sit and relax with some screen time for 20 minutes as they let their food go down.
However, another child psychologist, Dr Richard Woolfson, says there is no need even for this allowance – at least at the majority of mealtimes – as it can lead to children rushing.
“Access to gadgets at the family dining table inevitably distracts children from eating what’s in front of them, and reduces their desire to chat with others during dinner, isolating them from the dynamic communication of the family meal.
“This is a lost opportunity and a solid reason why it’s best to make at least some family mealtimes a no-gadget zone.
“After a few initial protests, your toddler will soon adapt and everyone will experience the full psychological and nutritional benefits of an IT-free family meal.”