TV for dinner? While it might not be surprising to learn that over a third of families report having the television on when they dine at home, fast-food restaurants are taking hold of this trend by putting televisions in plain view for their diners. McDonald's recently launched its own TV channel. According to the Los Angeles Times, the network will air segments about "McDonald's Achievers" -- you know the type: busy moms who coach soccer, are busy executives, and still find time to have a meal with their family at McDonald's.
The network will also air eight minutes of advertising every hour. So imagine how this will play out. You have a rushed day at work, you stop by for quick meal with your kids, maybe hoping to catch up on the day's events, and all around you are television sets blaring images of other busy people who somehow make life work -- and, oh yeah, ads for the very products you are consuming.
Why might this be a problem? First, consider why having television on while you eat with your kids may not be the best idea. There is considerable scientific evidence to show that families that regularly eat together (three or more times a week) have children who are less likely to be overweight, less likely to develop eating disorders, more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, and less likely to eat junk food. So eating together as a family can promote healthy eating in kids. But eating together as a family is not always a pleasant affair. We get that. For some families the solution is to turn on the TV. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that close to half of Americans have a television in the room where they eat. Parents report turning on the television to avoid conflict at the table. When the television is on, then family members don't talk with each other. It is the chatting back and forth -- How was your day? What happened on the bus? No, we can't get a new puppy -- that makes for a meaningful mealtime. Conversations and parent modeling healthy eating are the reasons that family meals can make for a healthy lifestyle.
Not only are televisions distracting devices during mealtimes, but they expose children and adults to food advertising that affects food consumption. Research has found that when children and adults are watching television with food ads, they consume more of the foods that are available. Perhaps McDonald's is counting on this and hopes that after eating your meal and then seeing some ads, you will decide to go back to the counter for dessert or another package of fries.
Interestingly, McDonalds is one of the companies participating in the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. As a result, they have pledged to only show their healthier options (like Happy Meals with apple dippers and low-fat milk) when placing ads on children's programs. But what about the television in the restaurant -- does that count as children's programming? The most common definition of a child-directed program is one where children under 12 make up at least 35 percent of the audience. If at least 35 percent of the customers in a McDonald's are under 12, will McDonald's honor the spirit of its CFBAI pledge and not advertise foods that do not meet the CFBAI nutrition standards? They certainly don't have to -- this scenario of on-site TV ads didn't exist when the pledges were written, so they can do whatever they want without violating their promises. The behavior of McDonald's here will say a lot about whether industry self-regulation really works when a company needs to honor the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.
To summarize, there are three huge problems with this initiative by McDonalds. First, the encroachment of television into public dining spaces disrupts the positive benefits of eating together as a family. Television is not meant for consumption during family meals -- whether in the home or not.
Second, in-house networks like the McDonald's restaurant chain will not have any restrictions on food advertisements to children. This means that all the work that McDonald's has done to limit children's exposure to advertisements for its less-healthy foods may be undone inside the restaurant.
Third, McDonald's is an industry leader, and this will likely start a trend in other places. If other restaurants start introducing television stations inside their dining rooms, it will become harder and harder for parents to say no to television while dining.
We urge all parents to take control of the table. This might be the table at home or the table while dining out. Say "no" to television and "yes" to your family. It will be time well spent.
This article was co-authored by Barbara H. Fiese, Ph.D. She is a professor of Human Development and Family Studies, a Pampered Chef, Ltd. Endowed Chair in Family Resiliency, and Director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.