Parents who worry about their children constantly staring at their smartphones should set an example by not using their own devices so often - and set ground rules for screen-free mealtimes, parenting groups have said.

The Government's childhood star, Reg Bailey, told The Independent that British parents were letting "screens take over" and should talk to their children more often. He added that families needed to increase their "face-to-face" time and should gather around the dinner table rather than the television for meals.

Suzie Hayman, a trustee of the parenting charity Parentline Plus and the author of How To Have A Happy Family Life, said families were "getting worse" at talking to one another and that the proliferation of smartphones and other devices was partly to blame.

"It's not just parents giving in to letting their children having more screen time - it's also parents themselves," she said. "If you ask a family what's the first thing they do when they get home, they all admit it's 'Look at Facebook', either on mobile phones or on laptops. Instead of sitting round the dining table chatting, what they're doing is chatting with friends who are miles away. As a child, if your parents do it, then that's your model."


She added that parents needed to be firmer about having times in the day when all use of electronic devices is banned. "We do need to get back to sitting round the table more regularly, having meals together and face-to-face contact," she said.

Siobhan Freegard, founder of Netmums, the UK's biggest parenting website, said parents should "take a minute" to consider Mr Bailey's advice. "With an 'always on' culture, we can all be guilty of occasionally checking emails at the tea table, or letting kids watch TV whilst they eat to catch up on work," she said.

"But we also know from our own experiences that when we do carve out the time to just stop and sit down together as a family, it really does mean that we can talk and enjoy our time together. Often it is the one time that families can come together and catch up on each other's days, and when everyone is sitting round a table with no distractions, talk comes naturally - away from the ever-present screens."

A recent experiment carried out by scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles suggested that a heavy use of screens from a young age may be impairing children's ability to develop social skills.

The study, published online in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, found that a group of 11 and 12-year-olds who went five days without looking at a smartphone, television or other digital screen became better at reading human emotions than a group of their peers who continued to spend hours every day looking at their devices.

- Independent