Why it might be time to ban your smartphone from the dinner table
It may seem harmless to put down your fork and open that notification, but it’s actually having a negative impact on our happiness levels
If the normal working day is nine hours, and assuming we are all getting our recommended eight hours of sleep each night, that leaves us with seven hours of spare time in a day. Seven hours to catch up with friends, indulge in our hobbies or cook ourselves something delicious. However, according to latest estimates, we are choosing to spend four hours of each day glued to our phones.
Smartphone addiction has become such a normal part of everyday life, we don’t even put our phones down while we eat, regardless of whether we are in our own homes or paying to go out for a meal with family or friends. But while it may seem harmless to put down your fork and open that notification, it’s actually having a negative impact on our happiness levels.
Ryan Dwyer and Elizabeth Dunn, researchers from the University of British Columbia, looked at the effects of mobile phone use in social situations, focusing specifically on the impact it had on mealtimes for a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
“These days, it is common to see people sitting around the table at a restaurant, all staring at their phones. My colleagues and I wanted to know if this affected how much people enjoyed their experience,” Dwyer explains. “Although phones provide us with the world at our fingertips, we wondered if this constant access to the internet might come at a cost when we are socialising with others.”
And of course it does. The study asked 300 people in groups of three to five to go out for dinner. Half of the groups were told to leave their mobile phones on the table with their notifications enabled; the other half were asked to put their phones in their bags and leave them there for the duration of the evening. Afterwards, they were asked to complete a survey, although they were not told the purpose of the study. While the results were not too drastic, there was a definite dip in the enjoyment levels of the group who were left to freely check their phones. “Participants reported feeling more distracted when they had access to their phones, and it is likely that feeling of distraction is primarily what caused the drop in enjoyment,” says Dwyer.
Testing out the challenge
It’s this constant distraction that led to an Abu Dhabi hotel challenging customers to opt for a phone ban in its restaurants, in exchange for a discount on their bill. “We really just wanted to bring conversation back to the dinner table, that was the thought process behind setting the challenge,” says Jeremie Laurent, director of food and beverage at the Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal. “I first thought about it when I was out for dinner celebrating my birthday. I looked around the restaurant and I just saw so many people on their phones – taking pictures and on social media – it made me miss how the experience used to be.”
The hotel asked people to lock their phones away for the duration of the meal, and to make things a little bit more interesting, diners were given clear boxes, so they could see flashes of any incoming calls or text messages. “Some people said from the off that they wouldn’t be able to do it, but some people really embraced it. I had a large Arabic family come in one evening, and as the dad was paying for the meal, he asked all of his children to take part in the challenge and lock their phones away,” Laurent says.
“After the meal, the father came over to me to thank me. He told me he had been trying to engage with his children at mealtimes, but they were always attached to their phones. Hearing him tell me how they exchanged stories and had a wonderful evening together, that’s my favourite example.”
The challenge ran for two months between October and December, and anyone who took part was offered 20 per cent off their total bill. Laurent says he would love to make the absence of phones in his restaurants a more permanent thing. “I was slightly disappointed that more people didn’t take on the challenge, but now with the busy Christmas period out the way, it’s definitely something we plan to bring back,” he says. “Mobile phones change the whole atmosphere of a restaurant, and what I want is to bring the attention back to food and good company.”
Another reason to put away the phones
As for those Instagram images you absolutely must stop to take in the middle of your meal, Dubai chef Uwe Micheel offers another take: “When a chef sends food out to the table, and everybody starts taking pictures, the food becomes cold – it becomes something that’s not the way the chef had intended it to be. To me, that’s disrespect for the food and disrespect for the chef. And for you, the diner, it’s not about the meal any more, which you should enjoy the flavours of, instead of clicking and posting away.
When a chef sends food out to the table, and everybody starts taking pictures, the food becomes cold – it becomes something that’s not the way the chef had intended it to be. To me, that’s disrespect for the food and disrespect for the chef.
Chef Uwe Micheel
“And one more thing,” he adds, “these days, when guests come into a restaurant, they don’t flick through the menu to spot the flavours and dishes that appeal to their personal tastes, but rather, blindly order what they’ve seen on Instagram.”
It’s not just the vibe in restaurants that phones are affecting; they also have a negative impact on mealtimes in the home. Earlier this month, a number of doctors joined the UK government in releasing new advice based on research that shows a link between screen time and mental health problems, although the study adds that the connection is not yet fully understood.
However, the report urges families to strive to limit time spent on our mobile phones, including keeping them away from the dinner table.
“Screen-free mealtimes are a good idea,” the team say. “You can enjoy face-to-face conversation, with adults giving their full attention to children.
“Studies have reported that children and young people are worried about their parents’ screen use and want them to engage with them, so adults can lead by example by not using screens excessively in front of children and behaving online as they would in person.”
Of course, it’s not just mealtimes that are being affected by the constant pull of our phones.
“The negative effects of phone use are also likely to accumulate across various situations in life,” says Dwyer.
“While using your phone in any one situation may not have a large impact on well-being, the cumulative effects may cause people to feel a constant sense of distraction as they go about their daily lives.”
He adds: “Humans are typically bad at multi-tasking, so I think the negative effects we observed here will always plague us in our ever-connected world, but if you want to fully enjoy an experience with other people, it might be best to put your phone away.”
Updated: February 24, 2019 06:46 PM