Aliens slyly observing Australia might be baffled by our dinners. Not the stir-fried or the lasagne but the not-so-silent partner at most Australians' meals: the television.
About three-quarters of Australian families eat dinner together five or six times a week, but 60 per cent ''always or often'' eat in front of the television, according to research by Rebecca Huntley of Ipsos Mackay.
The alien might wonder why families need the screen as they munch and slurp. It cannot purely be for information, as this is generally available nowadays at any hour: the headlines or weather need not wait for six o'clock as they did when I was a kid.
The television cannot be a proper conversation piece since it leaves talk stilted and half-heard.
The alien might cautiously conclude that Australian families simply don't like one another. They need the pulsing pixels to distract them from the banality or misery of family dining.
Maybe the alien's hypothesis is not as absurd as it seems. Television is often a concession to physical or mental exhaustion at the end of a working day. It is almost the least we can do while still being awake.
But while the brain's visual areas are busy parsing and piecing together the bright lights, its higher functions often grow dim. Studies suggest that excessive television watching leaves viewers lethargic, unmotivated and unimaginative. As a result, it can leave us more knackered or foggy - "spaced out", as one researcher put it - than if we hadn't slumped in front of it.
Clearly Australians' nightly idiot box dinners are not drugging families into a stupor. But perhaps we often prefer this hazy consciousness to conversation with our loved ones. It is calming, numbing.
A sceptic might reply: simply because the television is on does not mean anyone's watching it. True. But if so, why is it on at all? Partly for company in some households where the TV provides background noise all day, from morning chat shows to the late movie, or flicked between cable channels. It takes the edge off sharp loneliness or gives an ordinary lounge the hint of ''happenings''.
But dinner with one's spouse or family is hardly a desert island in need of electronic company. Instead, television, like portable music and mobile games, can also be a device for avoiding the draining or painful facts of familial life. There is nothing shocking or immoral about this. The human condition, if not brutish, nasty and short, is certainly fragile and bewildering.
The issue for Australians taking communion at the wide-screen altar is simply whether or not it makes life better. Does the short-term break from discomfort or discontent have nasty long-term consequences?
One possibility was reported by the English organisation Relate. Its study The Way We Are Now found that British families are having trouble maintaining strong relationships, which are vital for negotiating the stresses of career, parenthood, marriage - and new telecommunications and media technology are a big part of this problem because they fracture focus and dilute concentration.
Taken at the end of a long day, they could also be a serious obstacle for Australian relationships. For most couples with children, the working day is usually spent apart, after which come school pick-ups, sport drop-offs, domestic chores.
Meanwhile, smartphones and computers bring the stresses and distractions of work into the home, and out of office hours. They also encourage habituation: checking and browsing for a ''hit'', not because the job requires it. As a result, there are very few minutes left to speak to one another without interruption or diversion. Relationships fray for lack of intimacy.
The dinner table, for all its archaism, is one of the last asylums for regular communication; to share impressions, air complaints, squabble and laugh. This sounds trivial but for busy couples and families it is increasingly rare. Problems go unsolved, successes unnoticed, discoveries uncelebrated. We can become familiar strangers: sharing money and rooms but not the tangle and tumble of life.
Television is no science-fiction villain. This is a human problem, with human solutions, and the TV is simply one more player in the daily competition for attention.
But the stakes of this contest are high: greater intimacy, and the contentment, health and resilience it can afford. Along with computers and smartphones, the idiot box has the upper hand.
Which is fine if we're happy to be the aliens at the table: to one another.
Dr Damon Young is a philosopher and author of Distraction (MUP). www.damonyoung.com.au