Dinnertime doesn’t look like it used to. Gone are the days of sitting around a table with polite smiles, small talk, proper table manners and — gasp — eye contact. Now people spend most of their meals looking down at those damn phone screens, glued to their social media feed, news alerts, emails, and texts… Whatever it is that the participants around the dinner table are looking at, one thing is for sure: they are not looking at each other. And it’s really a shame, because time and time again scientific research and expert studies have shown us that dinnertime together, with friends or family members, is a crucial ingredient to overall happiness and health. The food you eat might sustain you, but the company you keep is what really fills you up. And newsflash, where company is concerned, your cell phone cannot compare to live human interaction.
While mealtime looks different for everyone, there are some common elements and consistent truths about what makes or breaks a good meal. Good food helps, obviously. Hygienic surroundings help too, of course. But good company is key. And regardless of where you are eating, what you are eating or whom you are eating with, cell phones at the dinner table can become a serious problem.
Whether you are dining with your family or friends, sitting alongside colleagues or on a date, that table time is important, and your focus should be on your company, not your mobile device. Before you roll your eyes at the thought of an old-fashioned dinner table with tablecloths, fine china, home cooked meals and table manners that would make Emily Post proud, hear us out. We know it’s 2019. Life is busy. Mealtime can be complicated. We’re not suggesting you travel back in time to the 1950s or pretend that cell phones don’t exist in your daily life. But meal time matters. The importance of being truly present during dinner cannot be stressed enough, so put the cell phone down for a brief period of time, pick your head up, look around the table, and actually engage.
Your health and your happiness depend on it.
The Importance of Family Dinners
While traditional family dinners may seem outdated or unrealistic, they matter more than ever, especially for children. According to Julie Linker, Ph.D., family dinners are important rituals that you practice as a part of a family unit, and rituals are an essential part of a stable home, especially for kids. “Rituals make us feel like we belong to something or someone. They offer a sense of stability and comfort. They help us navigate through good times and tough times,” she explains in Psychology Today. Rituals, which can include everything from bedtime stories to morning hugs to family walks, holidays, songs, secret handshakes and more, are an important part of what brings your family together, and what keeps your family strong on good days and bad. And in regards to family dinners, they are the perfect opportunity to connect and catch up with one another. It’s your chance to find out how your kids’ days were, to ask questions about what they have learned or what was the best/worst part of their day. It’s your time to show support, to laugh, to share and to simply be present with one another. It’s pretty impossible to do all of those things if you’re nose deep in a Kardashian scandal or text chat.
Linker stresses the importance of keeping dinner tables screen free. Because family dinners are about togetherness and being present, phones should be banned at the dinner table, and adults need to lead by example and stay off their phones during this valuable time.
Dr. Anne Fishel, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and founder of The Family Dinner Project, agrees. Family dinners are the most reliable way for families to connect regularly, she explains. And surveys have shown that dinnertime is when most children and American teens are most likely to talk to their parents. Family dinners help to reduce stress and anxiety in children, and they improve family relationships for people of all ages. But, and this part is really important, all of that only holds true if the dinner time involves actual human connection and adults being present with their kids. Aka, no phones.
Using Your Cell Phone at Dinner is Making You Unhappy
Have you ever looked around a restaurant at the other patrons, and noticed that virtually everyone spends time looking at their phones? It’s a bizarre thing to witness, but it’s become increasingly common to use your cell phones at the dinner table. And we’re not talking about on-call doctors checking in with the hospital or about picking up your phone to answer a call from the babysitter. We’re talking about people glancing at Instagram to see photos of celebrities or friends who live far away instead of actually looking at the friends sitting right in front of them. We’re talking about people who can’t tear their eyes off their newsfeed and who choose to text with people instead of having an actual conversation in person. The addiction to technology, even at the dinner table, is undeniable. And as it turns out, using your phone at dinner isn’t just rude, it’s also making you and the people around you miserable.
So two psychology researchers from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Elizabeth Dunn and Ryan Dwyer, set out to investigate if there really is an impact of using your cell phone at dinner. What they found will make you think twice about glancing at your device at the table.
After testing participants — some were told to keep their phones out to answer an important survey question and others were told to put their phones away and answer the question on paper — and following up with questions to rate their dining experience, they found that phone use during a meal led to a decrease in diners’ enjoyment.
Their research, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that those who used their phones at the dinner table felt more distracted, less socially engaged, and experienced a noticeable dip in pleasure compared to those who didn’t engage with technology at the table.
“Phone use can be a bit of a habit. You’re used to pulling your phone out and looking for new notifications,” Dwyer explained. But considering the impact it has on both your enjoyment and the enjoyment of others, it’s important to limit that cell phone use. “Have a rule that if you’re going to go out to dinner with some friends or family members, you’ll put your phone on silent and leave it off the table. Try to stick to these rules so you can form new habits,” he suggests.
Let’s Talk About the Implications for Your Health
While this may seem obvious to some, cell phones and tablets are literally covered in germs. Imagine how many times a day you touch your phone screen, or how many times you swipe your tablet. Now imagine how many other people may have touched those screens, or think of all the surfaces where you have placed down those devices. And think about what else you touch throughout your day (public bathrooms, restaurant table tops, your desk, your wallet and money, your steering wheel, shaking a strangers hand, just to graze the surface.) Both you and your cell phone are doused in germs, and while we’re hoping you wash your hands often, we’re willing to bet you never disinfect your cell phone. So having that phone on your dinner table, or using it while you are eating, means you are contaminating your entire meal with germs.
According to scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), cellphones and tablets typically harbor so many germs that they may actually pose a hazard when used in your kitchen during food preparation or brought to the dinner table. This isn’t exactly a new discovery. In fact, a 2012 study conducted by scientists at the University of Arizona found that cell phones carry 10 times more bacteria than most toilet seats. All together now: EW.
Results from the 2016 Food Safety Survey, which was published in the Journal of Food Protection, indicate “nearly half of Americans report using smartphones or tablets during food preparation, and of those, only 37 percent wash their hands before they handle the food after touching the device.” We use our cell phones at the gym, at work, on public transportation, in the bathroom, and then we use it in the kitchen and at the dinner table. So all of those thousands of germs lingering on your mobile device is finding its way to your dinner plate, and spreading to other people at the table as well. Think about that next time you consider using your phone during dinnertime.
Bottom line: cell phones at the dinner table are a bad, dirty, damaging idea. So put down the device, stop staying at your screen and commit to leaving your phone off during dinner. We promise you’ll thank us later.