Do you bring your phone with you to sit down and enjoy a meal with others? Are you checking emails and scrolling through social media while dining with family or friends? Or do you leave your phone completely out of meal time?

As someone who speaks on Video Gaming Addiction and who sits on a committee for Balanced Technology Management, I am constantly observing the general public and their technology habits to try to sort out what seems to be the norm and what may seem unhealthy. It can be a challenge, at times for me to remain neutral and objective because I know so much about the dark side of excessive digital device usage in this tech world. I am not always sure where to draw the line between good and not-so-good.

I was recently away on vacation for twelve days, so I had a lot more time to pay attention to how people were interacting with each other as they ate in restaurants. And I have to say that it opened my mind and my understanding a little more. I cannot say, for certain now , that I am for or against having a digital device at meal time. I think its an individual decision based on each unique situation. And here’s why.

I saw a couple sitting together, one on their phone while the other was not. The woman looked happy to be scrolling through her digital photos, occasionally sharing one with her spouse. Her spouse seemed to be enjoying his beer and sitting aimlessly lost in his thoughts. At first, I thought how rude it was of her to have her phone out. But then I started thinking about the fact that they may have had a busy day together and this is how each of them chooses to sit and decompress for a moment. Neither seemed bothered by the other person’s behaviour and they both seemed to enjoy their food when it arrived.

On another occasion, my husband and I were seated next to two families out for dinner. There were six of them. Each couple had a son and the boys looked to be about five years old. The boys were handed their mother’s phones to play on before and after the meal came, and at times during the dinner, when only the adults were still eating. At separate times, the two men answered calls on their phones while staying seated at the table. And at random times, any one of the adults would check their phones and answer emails and/or texts during their night out. And as each person engaged with their device, the others would continue their conversations with the remaining dinner guests, seemingly not bothered by these interruptions. The boys were well behaved and seemed happy to be digitally entertained. There was much conversation and laughter throughout their meal and no one seemed to be upset by the use of technology at the table.

I watched couples and/or friends sit together, both or all of them on their phones, sharing photos, interesting stories, and/or online humour with each other. There was lots of talking and they seemed full of joy and no one seemed to mind this style of interacting. And food and drinks were still enjoyed.

Only once did I see a couple at dinner and I felt sad about their lack of communication while sharing a meal. The man spent much of his dining time looking through and reading on his phone, while his wife sat looking annoyed. However, she said nothing, just looked around the restaurant and smiled sheepishly at the others. I wanted to get up and tell this man just what he was missing, on his wife’s behalf. But, of course, I didn’t. I don’t know their story and this was just one more example of how technology has changed the way we eat and interact, good or bad. I was just the observer.

It is 2019. There are approximately seven billion humans on earth and there are 6.8 billion mobile phones owned. That isn’t the entire population who own these digital devices. There are countries where people have more than one cell phone each while other countries have no cell phones at all. But that is still an enormous number of phones! Clearly, being connected to the internet has become the norm for a great deal of people in this world.

Have we simply learned to adapt our social interactions around our cell phones? Or are we making a huge mistake in turning away from each other while moving towards the internet far too much?

Research has shown that we are not as good at multitasking as we think we are. Our brain tries to fool us into thinking it can do more than one thing at a time. It can’t. Magnetic Resonance Imaging studies at Vanderbilt have shown that the brain is not built for multitasking. While trying to do two things at once, the brain will temporarily shut down one task while trying to do the other. In this study, even doing something as simple as pressing a button when an image is flashed causes a delay in brain operation. So, how much of the conversation between two people at a dinner table, is actually being fully absorbed and processed while one or all of them are scrolling through their devices? 

I know, for me, I prefer to enjoy good food with friends and family and engage in conversation, free of any technology gadgets. I like making eye contact, observing facial and body language, and not being distracted by emails and social media. I feel ignored or unimportant when someone chooses their phone over having fully engaged conversation with me. However, I am not opposed to someone using their phone, during this time to look something up for more information on a topic we are discussing, or sharing a photo or sending a link that pertains to our discussion. And if a phone rings, I prefer that the person leaves the table to answer it, if they must.

It is clear that we are all connected closely by our digital devices now, It is why we carry them with us wherever we go. I think that perhaps it’s worthy of having a discussion ahead of time to establish how each person feels and what cell phone rules they wish to apply for each occasion they are engaging with others. If you want to have a meaningful conversation that requires focus and problem-solving, I think it best to put the phone down. But sharing a meal with light conversation and laughter may not require full engagement. This seems to be the acceptable norm right now. But certainly, on a day-to-day basis with meals eaten at home, I still believe its most important to keep phones away from the table and bond as a family.

I am interested in how this will evolve into the future. Will we see more cell phones coming to the table, while out in public, or will society eventually return to meals that are tech-free?