Restaurants, Table Tablets Shouldn’t Be a Thing

Dear Red Robin,

My kids love your burgers. My 7-year-old will eat a basket of your fries all by himself. He’s skinny as a little rail, so I don’t know where they go, but they can disappear within minutes. We don’t eat out often, but when we do, my kids’ request is always your place. It’s the balloons, the arcade room. Our local Red Robin occasionally has Kansas City balloon artists and face painters hang out for patrons, and I think that’s so great. We don’t do sensory overload city Chuck E. Cheese, so your arcade is a compromise we make.

But I gotta say. It’s over. I have to end the family-dining love with you and with Chili’s (the original table tablet restaurant), Applebees, Olive Garden, Uno’s, and I’m sure, many other restaurant establishments.

Here’s why:

IMG_1909

I can’t stomach this with my burger. 

Actually, the words that were in my head when we were seated at our table, the first time I saw this device, were a little more like, “What the heck is a screen doing on the table?? Get that off the table I am about to pay to eat on.” I picked it up and put it on the floor.

Let’s just ignore the germ infestation that these things are for a minute (think of people picking up fries and licking their fingers, then going to order a drink refill on that device… oh my vomit disgusting), chalk that up to building kids’ immunities like playground equipment and doorknobs, and address a deeper, more important sociological, psychological, relational reason my family can’t eat at your table anymore.

Eating out is a special occasion. No offense, but my husband and I prefer sushi and seafood tacos when we go out on a date, so we’re headed somewhere else. At our stage in the family life cycle, we only come to Red Robin when we have kids with us. We are paying to teach our children the skills they need for dining out, how to speak to strangers, how to make polite requests, how to behave at a public dining experience.

At home, the dining table is a screen free zone. You put a screen on every table in your restaurant to make it easier to collect payment, upsell appetizers, drinks and desserts, increase tip amounts by having a suggested tip option and to “entertain kids” (and collect gaming income). You’ve undermined the lessons we are teaching our children, and I can’t allow it.

One of the most difficult parenting struggles – new to today’s parent, unlike any generation before us – is teaching our children to use screens effectively without losing empathy, compassion, the ability to communicate and socialize with other humans. I don’t think I really need to provide you with citations for this, but just in case you weren’t aware that screens are a problem these days: here, here (#3). President Obama urged parents and kids alike to put down the screens and look at each other. Neuroscientists are sharing copious research on how screens literally effect the anatomy and structure of the brain, stimulate addiction and decrease empathy and connection.

There’s also a loud conversation going on between professionals and parents regarding the importance of family meals. The Family Dinner Project  explains:

“Over the past 15 years researchers have confirmed what parents have known for a long time: sharing a family meal is good for the spirit, the brain and the health of all family members. Recent studies link regular family dinners with many behaviors that parents pray for: lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem. Studies also indicate that dinner conversation is a more potent vocabulary-booster than reading, and the stories told around the kitchen table help our children build resilience. The icing on the cake is that regular family meals also lower the rates of obesity and eating disorders in children and adolescents.”

So let’s do some math. If problems with screens is A, and problems with family dinners is B, then you’ve done A + B = C…IMG_1910

C = There a specific thread of conversation between professionals and parents about ditching screens at meal times: herehere, here, here. Even the Pope said, “A family that almost never eats together, or that never speaks at the table but looks at the television or the smartphone, is hardly a family,” he said. “When children at the table are attached to the computer or the phone and don’t listen to each other, this is not a family, this is a pensioner.” Why would I pay you for the experience you are offering?

Look, I love hanging out at a bar and grill with my husband to watch a Royals game. I expect that there will be ambient noise from a mounted television. I also understand that it’s likely I’m now the 30-something old fogy that can’t change with the times, and that 50 years from now, screens at the table will be like the televisions at the restaurant bar. But please consider that you are actually shaping the future by determining what to normalize as a restaurant experience. I don’t want this to be a new normal.

I get it that there’s fun concepts, like touchscreen tables, pizza dispensers, robot servers, flying food delivery… kind of like the novelty of a little model train carrying your food to your table via a track that runs around the restaurant (see Fritz’s at Crown Center), but this table tablet thing isn’t a novelty. It’s not a special experience. It’s IMG_1908something we battle everyday in our own homes, and now it’s in your restaurant.

Here’s a thought… how about you be the first casual family dining restaurant that serves bottomless french fries to offer parents a screen-free experience for their kids. Rather than saying, “Look kids! A flashing, sparkling screen for you to watch while your parents scarf down their food!!” Rather than trying to pad your pockets, distract us into eating more and contributing to the obesity epidemic, training my kids’ brains to need constant, manic audiovisual stimulation, maybe even put servers out of employment, how about you remember that food is a social experience. How about you help us teach our children to interact with other human beings politely, how to order food, receive it gratefully, ask for more ice water. That’s a dining experience for my kids I’d pay for.

You could start with this super-stealth pepper grinder that turns off WiFi… just a suggestion.

, , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to Restaurants, Table Tablets Shouldn’t Be a Thing

  1. Brittney Brownell April 26, 2016 at 1:40 pm #

    Oh my goodness, I thought the same thing when my husband and I ate at Chili’s a few months ago and at Olive Garden last month! We don’t go out much either so when we go out, I want his undivided attention. I immediately set the screen facing against the wall. We won’t be going back to Chili’s due to poor service. Our server at Olive Garden was still very attentive so we had a great experience there. The only benefit I can see is the payment function but I’d rather it not be there at all.

  2. Shea Sayers
    Shea Sayers April 26, 2016 at 2:46 pm #

    YESSS to all of this. I haven’t been to Red Robin (or Chili’s for that matter) in a long time, but I agree with everything you said here. This: “We are paying to teach our children the skills they need for dining out, how to speak to strangers, how to make polite requests, how to behave at a public dining experience.” is so right on and I hope more restaurants realize that and don’t fall into the screen trap.