Please Pass the Tablet: Are Devices Ruining Family Dinner Conversation?

PHOTO: Applebees intends to put a tablet computer on all its restaurant tables in the US. The Presto tablets will allow diners to play games, learn more about menu and pay the check.

Applebee's announced today it will be installing a tablet computer at of every one of its 100,000 restaurant and bar tabletops across the U.S. With the devices, diners will be able to order menu items, play games, pay their check and enjoy other services. But will the tablets help or hinder family conversations?

Applebee's is not the first with plans to put tablets on tables. This fall, Chili's announced it would be making the same move, putting a computer on each table of its' 823 Chili's-operated restaurants by March 2014. IHOP reportedly is considering following suit.

Applebee's spokesperson Dan Smith tells ABC News that Applebee's rollout is the most sweeping to date. It plans to have installed 100,000 E la Carte Presto tablets, powered by Intel, by the end of 2014. Says an Applebee's statement: "E la Carte designed Presto specifically for restaurants, creating both a best-of-breed tablet platform for operators and a fun, easy-to-use experience for guests."

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Maybe best of all, says Smith, diners will be able to control when and how they pay their check. "There's no lag time waiting for the bill, handing off your credit card, or waiting to sign. When you're finished with your meal, you can just swipe your card or press a button notifying your server that you want to pay by cash.

The tablets will come equipped with games, including ones aimed a single diners, couples, or families with kids.

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What will be the effect of tablets on family dinner table dialog? The custom of families sharing news and conversation around the dinner table stands in danger of extinction today as never before, says John Sarrouf, director of The Family Dinner Project (FDP). Many factors threaten its perpetuation, says Sarrouf, but technology certainly can be one.

Sarrouf's group tries to promote family dinner table conversation, which it says has been linked by research to the well-being of a family's physical, emotional and mental health. Children of families who share meals and talk, he says, perform better academically, have higher self-esteem, and have a lower risk of substance abuse that those of families who do not.

Having a tablet or a smart phone at the home dinner table, he says, is increasingly common. And it's more common, too, for parents—young ones especially—to tolerate their children's use of such devices during dinner.

"We do workshops with young parents about how to get the family to connect around the table," he says. "I hear particularly from parents of young children they give them tablets to distract them, so the adults can talk without being disturbed." Better, he thinks, that parents use smart devices as a way to get adults and kids to connect.

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The Family Dinner Project website has advice on how to do that. If, say, somebody orders a piece of cake for desert, mom or dad can ask if anybody knows who the queen of France was who was famous for saying "Let them eat cake." Then the tablet becomes a way to pull up Marie Antoinette's story, with the kids asking questions about who she was.

Applebee's Smith agrees. Nothing says that a family needs to use the tablet at all, he points out. They can go low-tech and order off the menu. "The tablet is just an option," he says. "It's not meant to replace the traditional service model."

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