Malta is grappling with a significant challenge: childhood obesity. A World Health Organisation report ranked Maltese children as being the most overweight and obese among 45 countries surveyed.
As a dietitian, I work with overweight children daily, and one of my primary strategies with these clients is ensuring that meals are not consumed in front of a screen. It, therefore, came as a shock to learn that there is a growing trend among local schools (including kinder and primary) to show television during school lunch breaks.
There’s substantial empirical evidence on why children (and adults, for that matter) should not eat in front of screens. For instance, the IDEFICS study, involving over 15,000 European children aged two to nine, found that eating while watching television increased the risk of being overweight by 20 to 35 per cent.
Similar results were reported in the ENERGY study, which encompassed almost 8,000 European children aged 10 to 12.
In a 2006 issue of Physiology & Behaviour, D.R. Anderson and colleagues reported that eating while watching television led to students eating faster, suggesting that TV watching caused a state of excitation that in turn increased food intake.
Moreover, students watching TV during mealtimes also eat for longer periods, suggesting that the normal gastric, intestinal and behavioural cues that usually signal fullness become ineffective.
In essence, watching TV while eating results in children ignoring internal cues of satiety and experiencing delayed satiation.
It gets worse: a study by Nanette Stroebele-Benschop and colleagues at Georgia State University found that students who eat lunch in front of television were also likely to experience hunger and have the next meal sooner than those who did not eat in front of the TV.
“Screen use during mealtimes is particularly concerning for toddlers and preschoolers”
To quantify this impact, consider a study by Nick Bellissimo and colleagues from the University of Toronto, which found that 12-year-old boys who watched TV while eating lunch consumed an extra 288 calories on average. If this occurs five days a week, it could potentially result in a 10-kilogramme weight gain over a year.
Screen use during mealtimes is particularly concerning for toddlers and preschoolers (aged two to five), as this is a crucial period for developing independent eating habits and self-regulation skills that often persist into adulthood.
Apart from the extensive data on the topic, there are also international guidelines regarding screens and mealtimes.
The American Academy of Paediatrics explicitly states that screens should not be present during meals, a stance also shared by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.
The issue extends beyond nutrition. School mealtimes offer a valuable opportunity for children to engage in social interaction, share stories and make friends. However, when screens are present during lunch, children are more likely to focus on them instead of interacting with each other, which hinders their social development.
Our schools should be a place where we nurture children’s physical, mental and social well-being. Having screens on during lunchtime does not align with this goal.
Manuel Attard is a registered dietitian and nutritionist.