Stop letting your kids stare at iPads in restaurants, science says

Editors Note: This was written by CNN’s David G. Allan. He writes a column called “Go Ask Your Dad” which offers parenting advice with a philosphical bent as he explores what we want out of life, for ourselves and our children, through useful paradigms and best practices.

I try to be restrained in my judgments of other parents. We have so many obligations and pressures when it comes to parental duties that it’s probably more detrimental to kids if their parents are further stressed by worrying that they’re doing it all wrong.

I think of this column as a gut check — encouraging some self-awareness and experimentation to see whether you can find something that improves your relationship with your kids or makes parenting easier or more enjoyable. For the most part, I believe that parents know what’s best for their kids.

But I find it hard to maintain this objectivity in one specific area: When I see parents in restaurants with their kid(s) zoned out on an iPad or phone, I start to get judgy.

I definitely appreciate the need for breaks from parenting, the desire to have a peaceful meal and adult conversation, and the need to find solutions when kids act up in public. But iPads in restaurants are not the solution to those problems. And not spending time communicating during meals can contribute to other problems down the road.

Two areas of research back me up on this.

First, a large number of studies investigate the positive mental and physical benefits of frequent screenless family meals. They show that the amount of time kids spend together during family meals is strongly correlated with academic achievement, fewer behavioral problems, less obesity and reduced rates of teen smoking, drinking and drug use.

Another area of inquiry has uncovered potentially damaging effects of too much screen time for young children. “Childhood screen-time has increased over the years,” write the authors of a study published Wednesday, and it “has been associated with unhealthy dietary patterns, poor sleep quality, cardiovascular disease, and obesity in children.”

In this new research — analyzing thousands of Canadian preschool children — scientists found that when the kids spent more time in front of iPads, computers, TVs and mobile phones, they experienced increasing levels of “clinically significant inattention problems” as well as other ADHD-type behavior issues. When the amount of daily screen time increased from 30 minutes to more than two hours a day, the problems multiplied by at least five times.

A similar study, published just a few months ago, found that spending a lot of time staring at screens is linked with poorer performance on developmental screening tests later in childhood.

Screens during meals rob kids of opportunities to improve language and communication skills (storytelling, making jokes, etc.), as well as to develop patience and even imagination as they entertain themselves waiting for food to arrive.

Meals are an opportunity to connect, to learn more about and enjoy each other. They solidify the bonds that will pay dividends for the rest of our lives. We squander that opportunity when we stick a screen in front of our kids during dinner.

Of course, we all want to have enjoyable family meals, which is why I love Bruce Feiller’s book “The Secrets of Happy Families,” in which he devotes an entire chapter to ways to make them fun and meaningful for everyone — such as “fill in the blank” sentences you make up. Sharing something good and something challenging makes for engaging conversations, too. And I’ve had fun playing Uno with my daughters until the food arrives in a restaurant. “The game you’re going to try during your next family meal is ____________.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics also offers guidelines to help families manage children’s screen time. The academy recommends avoiding digital media for children under 2, except for video-chatting, and limiting screen time to just one hour a day of high-quality programming for children ages 2 to 5.

Fundamentally, we all benefit from more human connection, not less — and that’s especially true for children. Schools, airplane trips, most jobs, games, even “social” interaction were all once done without screens but now are filled with them. And while we have gained some advantages, including new connections, we have lost something fundamental, as well.

Less is always more when it comes it screens, even if they are effective at keeping kids quiet. But soon after complaining that they are “bored,” kids have a natural tendency to fill the screenless void with creative games, art, exploration and conversation. There are no studies that warn against having too many hours of those activities.

Let’s all work harder to keep family meals special by ditching the iPads and nourishing our personal connections as we nourish our bodies.

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