Technology

Why We Can't Stop Looking at Our Screens When We Eat

When was the last time you made dinner without queuing an episode on Netflix first?

by Carly Lewis-Oduntan; illustrated by Mel Lou
29 January 2018, 9:26am

What are you doing right this second? Did you click on this article because you saw the headline and thought that it was something you might want to read as you wolf down forkfuls of chow mein with one hand, scrolling through your device with the other?

Don't be alarmed, no one has hacked your camera. As we become increasingly reliant on our phones, laptops, and other handheld devices, it's not unjustified to assume that a large number of you will be eating a meal as you read this.

And who can blame you? There's something undeniably comforting about tucking into dinner while sitting snuggly on the sofa with an old 30 Rock episode on your laptop or gliding through Instagram Stories. Someone who knows this all too well is Taranah. “I can't eat in silence at all,” she admits. “My mind starts going overtime which ruins my food. I like to not think about anything and just lose myself in the food and TV, it's quite hard to explain. I can only concentrate on a meal if I'm at a restaurant and even then my entertainment is conversation.”

Gbenga is someone else who feels like he has to indulge in screen time, usually via Netflix, when consuming his evening meal. “I like to know what it is I'm going watch before I've even sat down to eat,” he says. “It's rare that I'll ever have dinner when I'm not watching a programme and it always feels really weird. It's not right.”

And it's not just us regular folks who’ve given in to the lure of our screens, celebrities are also very much a part of the eating-dinner-in-front-of-the-TV club. Recently T-Pain tweeted: “I can't bring myself to trust a person that can eat a full meal without watching tv. I can't even start eatin until I find the right show.” Unsurprisingly, his tweet went viral. Of course it did, we've all been sucked into the screen vortex.

But what exactly is behind our obsession with eating in front of the TV? According to experts, there isn't one cut and dry answer. Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University and the author of Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, thinks there are several contributing factors.

“With the decline of the family meal and more people living alone because of divorce, old age, and changes in society, we look for something else to do if we're dining by ourselves like turning to the TV or the laptop,” he explains.

Rae is someone whose lifestyle means she has no choice but to dine in front of the box. As a business owner, a meal in front of the TV counts as quality time with her partner.

“It's the only time I get to see my other half! I definitely think it would be difficult to stop eating this way as I’ve gotten so used to it now,” she says.

You might think that a meal with your feet up watching Game of Thrones might make the eating experience more pleasurable, but you'd be mistaken.

“I don't think there's any evidence to suggest that the food tastes better overall,” says Suzanne Higgs, professor in the psychobiology of appetite at the University of Birmingham. “What some people have found is that when we eat, the food starts off being very tasty, but you normally get a gradual decline in people's ratings of how pleasant the food is which is thought to be one of the mechanisms that contributes to us stopping eating. But what TV might be doing is offsetting that decline in the pleasantness of food as we eat, so in a sense the pleasantness might be maintained for longer.”

One thing that’s been proven through various studies is that eating in front of the TV is detrimental to our health.

“We've done quite a bit of research on this and there have also been a number of studies published by other groups to suggest that if you eat while you're watching TV you're likely to eat more than if you were eating without any kind of distraction and you might also be less sensitive to things like feelings of fullness,” says Higgs.

And though it may seem like the unthinkable, the answer to kicking our television-dining habit is a simple one according to Spence.

“What you have to do if you're serious about tackling this would be to work on some social aspects of dining. If more people ate together with their families and friends they'd get a positive consequence of reducing distraction by other means.”

So what will it be tonight? Will you be reaching for the remote or turning your back (pun intended) on the TV for good?