How can we reduce screen use during meals?

An Australian study explores the experiences of mothers with young children

One-third of young children in Australia use screens during meals every day. Screen use includes TV, tablets, and smartphones. Research shows that children who use screens during meals often lack adequate nutrition. This association is stronger in families with lower income and education levels. So, it is important to identify strategies that help families to reduce the use of screens during meals.

Researchers at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) have put a focus on this area. They interviewed 14 mothers who had no university education and at least one young child between six months and six years old. They used a technique called ‘motivational interviewing’ to explore barriers to reducing screen use. This technique uses ‘change talk’ to identify what someone would like to change and how they think they might go about it.

The mothers helped the researchers to design strategies to reduce mealtime screen use. The mothers then tried these strategies in their own homes for 3-4 weeks.

Families with higher screen use during meals tended to start with smaller goals. Others with lower screen use were more likely to remove all screens at once. Strategies that mothers used the most were:

  • setting clear and consistent expectations (e.g. screen-free for every meal)
  • modelling expected behaviours (e.g. joining in on screen-free meals)
  • changing the physical environment (e.g. moving meals from the sofa to the dining table)

The mothers reported that reducing screen use relied on them:

  • being consistent about their goal of having screen-free meals
  • pushing through tricky situations
  • having a strong belief in their own ability to achieve their parenting goals.

Most of the mothers reported that their consistency and self-belief strengthened over the 3-4 week period. Higher levels of consistency and self-belief among mothers were linked to:

  • an increase in the perceived value of mealtimes
  • children being more likely to try new foods
  • children being more likely to eat a wider variety of the foods served.

Mothers who took part in this study were motivated to change. However, they reported it required considerable effort to limit screen use during meals. The mothers suggested the following tips could help:

  • having mealtime planning tools
  • involving children in the meal preparation; and
  • having strategies to manage resistance, and redirect children when they ask for screens.

If you’d like to learn more about the impact of nutrition in the home, and its link with type 2 diabetes risk, check out this previous blog entry, or click here for more blogs about behaviour change.

This blog was written by Laura Jenkins for the Australian Centre for Behavioural Research in Diabetes. The original article is published here.