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Phones at the dinner table is a bad call

By Mark Andrews | Madeley | News | Published:

From the old Oxo adverts starring Lynda Bellingham, to the moments of high drama in our soaps, the sit-down meal round the dining table is portrayed as the crucial time when the family comes together to discuss the events of the day.

It is the place where bombshells are dropped, where big decisions are made. But what the television imagery rarely shows is the unwanted guest around the table – the smartphone or tablet that fixates the younger members of the family, who are oblivious to what is going on around them.

It is estimated that 11.4 million tech devices such as smartphones, tablets and MP3 players are brought to the dining table. And of these households, 22 per cent believe they prevent them from having proper conversations.

The experiences of Amanda Beasley in getting her three children Oliver, 15, Lilly-May, 14, and Archie, five away from their phones at mealtimes will probably echo those of parents all over the country.

"I've banned phones at mealtimes, but they will all try to sneak their phones to the table," says the 41-year-old sales adviser from Randlay, Telford.

"They watch YouTube videos, they listen to music, they use it for Instagram. I don't think they use Facebook any more, I don't think that is very popular with youngsters."

Miss Beasley says of her three children, it is the teenagers are the most attached to their phones.

"Sometimes, if we have guest round, I will sit on the sofa to have my dinner, and then I will hear a faint noise in the background, and find one of them has got their phone on," she says.

"They usually say something like 'I just want to finish watching this video, it will only take a minute'."

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Miss Beasley says it is important that families sit down to eat together without the distraction of things like phones, but says it is a constant battle convincing the youngsters of this.

"I think it is very rude using your phone at the table," she says. "Could you imagine if you were in a restaurant and everybody was using their phones? You wouldn't do it."

Oliver and Lilly-May, who are pupils at Madeley Academy, had their first phones when they moved up to secondary school, although their first phones were only basic phones which did not connect to the internet. But once they got their first smart phones, it became hard to prise them away.

Miss Beasley says she does worry that today's youngsters spend so much time on their phones, and thinks today's children are more introverted than previous generations.

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"The youngsters today seem to be obsessed with their phones, and if you take if off them it is like having a limb cut off," she says.

"For us it's hard to understand, we have our phones so we are contactable or for emergencies, or to have a chat or send texts.

"But my daughter will have her friends round, and they will all be sat on the sofa looking at their phones, which I don't understand.

"It's the same with sons. My youngest watches YouTube videos of kids opening toys and playing with toys, as opposed to playing with his own toys. What is the point in that?"

Miss Beasley is not alone in fighting a constant battle to get the children away from their phones, but what is surprising is that some parents have come to the conclusion that if you can't beat them, join them. Sixteen per cent of mothers admit to actually texting their children to let them know their dinner is ready.

A survey of 2,000 parents reveals that two thirds of families regularly sit down together for a meal. However, 43 per cent of mothers also say they have had to resort to forcibly stop their children using phones, tablets or other devices at the dining table, either by banning or hiding them.

Unsurprisingly, it is youngsters who are the biggest culprits, with more than a third of children aged five to 15 regularly bringing their gadgets to family meals. The study, commissioned by food company General Mills, also found that tapping away at a smartphone or tablet limits the amount of time families spend together at meal times.

The research suggests that social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are the biggest sources of distraction, being cited by 56 per cent of those who responded. Emails and messaging services such as WhatsApp were the second biggest bugbear, being identified by 48 per cent of those who took part.

While 76 per cent of the mothers who responded to the survey believe that spending meal times together is important for the family, 37 per cent felt that actually getting them to sit down for a meal was a struggle.

Parenting expert Liz Fraser believes it is the portable nature of today's technology that is the biggest problem.

"Technology has been in family homes for decades; but mobile tech means it comes with us everywhere we go," she says. "Sadly, that often includes mealtimes.

"Previously nobody would have brought a television to the dinner table, or eaten their breakfast while on the phone in the hallway.

"Meal times are absolutely vital for family bonding, developing social skills, and sharing stories from the day. Making them a little bit different and fun are great ways to keep everyone's focus in the room and rediscover the pleasure in just spending time with each other."

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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