Last weekend my husband and I decided to treat our three kids to lunch at a favorite casual spot. We walked in to find a new addition to the décor: a flat-screen TV. We chose the only booth where our kids' eyeballs wouldn't be glued to it, which was the table directly beneath the TV. We're early lunch eaters and we were the only ones there, so I asked our server (nicely) if he could turn down the sound. He did.
Still, I'm bummed. In a time when it's challenging enough to get everyone in the family to look up from the screens on their devices and phones and share a meal together, and maybe even (whoa!) have a conversation, flat-screen TVs in restaurants have never felt less necessary—nor more ubiquitous. The list of our favorite eateries that now have one or several flat-screens is growing: our favorite pizza place; the tiny ice cream shop that doesn't have room for a lone table, but does have a flat-screen above the counter; and even a rustic eatery on a lonely road near a peach farm in the middle of nowhere, where my kids were treated between bites of their turkey and apple sandwiches to a freeway police chase.
I know I'm not alone in my dismay that dining out is now served with a side of screen. "We were in some tiny pizza joint in Astoria, Queens, and there was a horror movie on TV," says my Parents colleague Erika Janes, a mom of two young boys. "My kids were mesmerized. I had to ask them to change it."
We hear so much about how it's important to pick and choose what young children watch, especially when you consider sobering statistics like this one: The typical American child will be exposed to 12,000 acts of violence on television a year. So, I do my best to select movies and video games carefully. When I tune to our on-demand channel to find my preschooler a free kids' show, I mute the sound and tell her to avert her eyes, since the movie promo that flashes on screen while I quickly click to the kidfare is typically a violence-fest of fiery crashes and shootings. But when we're out and about and TVs are on at the doctor's office, the dentist, the checkout line, and restaurants, I know I'm in a losing battle.
I recently brought my girls to lunch at our closest fast-food joint (yeah, we occasionally eat there! choosing my battles one at a time here). It had just been remodeled in snazzier fashion, and was quite the step up for us—lounge-style seating, even a faux-fireplace—but there was that new addition again: a flat-screen TV. I found one of very few tables without a view of it, but while taking my preschooler to the restroom, I passed a boy who looked about 6. His eyes were fixated on CNN on the screen, which was featuring a segment about ISIS, and the boy asked, "Daddy, who are those men with guns?" My heart sank as the father fumbled for an explanation, even as I wrestled with perspective: We're much luckier, so much luckier, than the families we are seeing in the news on television.
People complain when they see parents of younger children in restaurants these days, their kids glued to games and animated shows on iPads and their parents' phones. And theoretically, I agree—these glowing devices can be an intruder on others' dining experience, and on what might be shared family time. But here's another thing to think about in our TV-obsessed culture: If my choice is between Dora on an iPad in my child's lap, and CNN airing a segment about the Taiwan plane crash on the restaurant wall, well: Which should a parent choose?
Maybe we're just eating in the wrong places. I think of restaurant critic Adam Platt's hilarious "Flat-Screen TV Axiom," which states the following:
But Mr. Platt wrote that for New York magazine in 2008, before TVs were everywhere. And we do most of our dining out in suburban America, not hip New York City. Flat-screen TV's, once mostly a staple of sports bars, now seem to be symbolic with a place having gone more upscale, strangely enough. Flat-screens have become part of the remodeling blueprint for chain restaurants looking to polish their image, along with glossy hardwood floors and leather seating, and also hang in the chicest of cafes. And some restaurants are already experimenting with "smart tables," spill-resistant touchscreen tabletops that you can swipe while you dine. When that happens at the restaurants near me, I give up.
Someone must be enjoying all this TV watching in restaurants, or we wouldn't see them everywhere. Maybe my perspective has just been so skewed as a parent that I see the issue differently than if I were a single, childfree 20something popping into any of these places with some time to kill. Who's to say I wouldn't enjoy a comfy couch and a nice large TV?
Or, I'd like to think, I'd be talking to whichever friend I'd come along with. It's the same thing I'm hoping for with my family: to share some conversation over a meal, without the distraction of a television. So, I'm favoring restaurants without flat-screens, though they're getting fewer and further between.
How do you feel when you see flat-screens in restaurants? Have you ever asked the restaurant to turn a TV down, or off?
Gail O'Connor is a senior editor at Parents and a mother of three.
Photo of a TV screen in a restaurant via Shutterstock