Parents who let their teens use electronic
devices or watch TV during family meals tend to serve less nutritious food and
have poorer family communication, a new study suggests.
Experts have suggested turning the TV off
at mealtime for years. But with the advent of cell phones and other handheld
devices, kids can bring all kinds of media with them to the table.
"The findings of this most recent
paper showed that mealtime media use is common among families with adolescents
but that setting rules around media use at meals may reduce media use among
teens and have other positive benefits as well," lead author Jayne A
Fulkerson told Reuters Health in an e-mail.
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Fulkerson is the director of the Centre for
Child and Family Health Promotion Research at the University of Minnesota
School of Nursing in Minneapolis. "Parents who are having family meals with
media could choose to make some rules excluding media at mealtimes to spend
more quality time with their children," she said.
Fulkerson and her colleagues asked more than
1 800 parents how often their adolescent children watched TV, talked on the
phone, texted, played games or listened to music with headphones during family
They also asked parents if they set rules
on media use at mealtime and whether they felt family meals were important.
Children answered questions about how well their families communicated,
including how often they talked about problems with their parents.
Two thirds of parents reported that their
teens watched TV or movies during family meals at least some of the time. One
quarter said the TV was on frequently.
Texting, talking on the phone, listening to
music with headphones and using handheld games were less common. Between 18% and
28% of parents reported those activities happened at mealtime, according
to findings published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Close to three quarters of parents said
they set limits on mealtime media use. Girls were more likely to use electronic
media than boys and media use at mealtime increased with age. It was also more
common among families with parents who were less educated or were black or
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Mealtime media use was less common when
parents set rules, but more common among families that didn't communicate much.
What results did the research produce?
Parents who reported frequent media use
also said their families had fewer servings of green salad, fruit, vegetables,
100% juice and milk at meals, and more sugar-sweetened beverages.
The researchers didn't ask if parents also
used electronic media at mealtime. "What parents told us is that kids (and
probably parents alike) are texting and using games while eating dinner. In
several surveys I have done with parents and youths, they have indicated that
there is a lot of multitasking going on," Fulkerson said.
She said research has shown frequent family
meals are tied to higher self-esteem and a better diet among kids.
Solutions to the problem
Given the opportunity, most children will
talk about themselves and their lives at mealtime, leading to better family
communication, Fulkerson said. "Perhaps they will have greater feelings of
connectedness as well. Mealtimes are a great venue for this. Of course, it is
not true for every family, but fits for many," she said.
"There is no magic number of how many
(family meals) to have, not all food at meals has to be 100% healthy and having
electronic media at meals is not all bad (e.g. an occasional movie night with
dinner) if it facilitates family time," she noted.
"But, parents can take small steps to
have quality time with their children by reducing media use at mealtimes."
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