What Is Distracted Dining and How Can It Harm Kids?

Not fully paying attention to kids at the table can have negative effects

family dinner - family talking and eating and smiling
Avoid distracted dining--pay attention to each other during family dinner time.. Tetra Images/Getty Images

It's important to sit down together as a family regularly to eat dinner, but how you interact and the peacefulness of your surroundings may have an important effect on how beneficial that family time is, says a study released in December, 2015.

We've all heard about the importance of eating together as a family: Studies have shown that regular family meals may play a significant role in reducing kids' risk of obesity and increasing the odds that they will eat healthy foods.

Eating together regularly as a family has even been linked to a wide-variety of mental and emotional benefits including improved academic performance, higher self-esteem, lower rates of depression and substance abuse, and much more. But new research shows that simply sitting together at a table isn't enough. Keeping things quiet and relaxed--without loud noises or music, cell phones at the table, and other distractions--and focusing on conversation with each other is important if you want to reap all the benefits of family dinners.

To test the effects of so-called "distracted dining" (eating together but not fully connecting to one another during the meal), researchers at the University of Illinois, in Urbana, led by Barbara H. Fiese, PhD, director of the Family Resiliency Center and professor of human development and family studies, videotaped 60 families as they ate a meal at the center's research home.

Half the families were exposed a loud noise for 15 minutes during the meal--in this case, a very loud vacuum cleaner right in the next room. The other half of the families were not subjected to the loud noise.

When researchers evaluated things like what foods were eaten and how family members communicated with each other, they found the following behaviors in the parents of the families exposed to the loud noise:

  • They got up and down more from the table.
  • They paid less attention to kids' concerns in the conversation.
  • They made fewer positive comments and expressed less positive forms of communication.
  • They ate more cookies.
  • They did less sharing of the news of the day.
  • They looked at their kids less often.

What do these findings reveal about the effect of distraction at the family dinner table? "The things we saw disrupted were the things that we know lead to positive outcomes in kids," says Dr. Fiese. Getting up and down from the table, not giving kids their full attention, paying less attention to kids' concerns--these behaviors all negatively impact good parent-child communication. And when parents are distracted, they're not only less likely to pay attention to what they themselves are eating, but they're less likely to monitor what their kids are eating as well, says Dr. Fiese.

While this study only examined a few families, these observations clearly point to the fact that a loud, chaotic environment can take away from the many benefits of family dinner time.

Dr. Fiese suggests these tips to decrease distraction and maintain good communication to ensure that you and your family get the most of your family meal times:

  • Be really engaged with your child; just sitting down together is not enough.
  • Turn off the TV and keep the cell phones and tablets away from the dinner table. Calming and soft background music is fine, but be sure it's not too loud so that you can focus on the conversation.
  • Ask your child about things that happened at school that day, and talk to her about your day. (Sharing something about yourself is not only a great way to inspire her to open up, but it's a way to strengthen your relationship and show your child you love her every day.
  • Pay attention to what your kids are eating and keep an eye on portion sizes (huge plate of veggies, small slice of cake--not the other way around).
  • Keep in mind that mealtime is an excellent opportunity for you and your children to have some downtime and de-stress as you enjoy each other's company.

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