x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Ur such good company. So why am I dining alone? LOL

Removing mobile phones from the dinner-table is the first step in a digital-free diet

Twitter, BlackBerry Messenger and Facebook are the microwave meals of human communication: quick, cheap and efficient.

Face-to-face communication, however, is far more psychologically nutritious, rendering the digital options limp, lame and lifeless by comparison. Watching a friend's face light up in response to your deftly delivered punch-line can never be replaced by colons and parentheses masquerading as emotional responsivity :).

The restaurant is one of the last bastions of genuine, organic face-to-face social intercourse. Sadly, even here, there are increasing numbers of diners insisting on a side of Blackberry with every meal.

It's particularly sad to watch a young couple out for a candle-lit meal, as both stare lovingly into their smart-phones while frantically thumbing messages to whoever, wherever. On what level are these two individuals actually even together? Sadder still, however, is when only one partner engages in this behaviour, the other waiting patiently for scraps of left over attention. Heart breaking.

Just as the more socially responsible corporations went smoke-free in advance of legislation, perhaps it's time for forward-thinking business leaders to begin rolling out tech-free policies. Is a blanket prohibition on digital communication devices at the dining table in order?

The proprietors of such establishments can proclaim themselves Wi-Fi-free, leveraging genuine human sociability as a USP (unique selling point). Rather than touting "Free Internet" they proudly declare themselves "Internet Free". Okay, it might be bad for business initially, but such moves are aimed at promoting psychological health and reviving the dying art of in vivo human sociability.

This might sound a little far fetched, but this is actually already starting to happen. Several hotels, mainly in the US, are attempting to entice visitors with promises of no internet and no mobile-phone coverage - the ideal place to unplug form a wired world. The digital detox.

A recent study, The World Unplugged, explored this issue of our increasing and unhealthy dependence on all things digital. The study, lead by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda, involved 1,000 students from 10 nations all tasked with going 24 hours without accessing any of their usual digital devices; no video games, no internet, no phones, no TV, no iPod. When the unplugged participants later wrote about their experiences, they generally described feelings of boredom, isolation, confusion and distress.

One participant from Lebanon wrote: "I felt as though I was 'lost' in a void. It was a very unusual and uneasy feeling. I felt like I was dis-attached from the world completely, as if everyone around me was doing something but I was 'left behind'."

But there was an upside to unplugging too: many of the participants described how they visited previously under-appreciated grandparents and engaged in deeper, more meaningful conversations with friends and family. Instead of watching TV together, one couple described experiencing the simple joy of going for a walk. The common thread was that for many, digital abstinence actually lead to profound improvements in the quality of their social contacts.

No one is trying to un-invent the internet; digital media is undeniably beneficial, in the same way that food is. But just as gluttony and poor dietary practice can have severe consequences for physical health, so too the overconsumption of digital content can detrimentally effect our psychosocial health.

There's no shortage of guidance on how to eat healthily. There is, however, very little guidance on healthy digital media consumption. Much more research is required to help us better understand our increasingly digital diet. What exactly are our digital content consumption habits doing to our minds? How are our online relationships impacting our real ones?

These questions are pertinent for the children growing up today, those who have been overly immersed in technology from a young age.

Such questions are also particularly relevant for the UAE which has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the region, and is ranked 23rd in the world on the Network Readiness Index, a measure of information technology capacity.

We should keep in mind that, as we binge on digital content, we often starve each other of vital human attention. Attention, like food, is a finite resource. Too much is wasteful, but too little can have dire psychological consequences.


Justin Thomas is an assistant professor of psychology at Zayed University