Earth & Conservation

Phones at the Dinner Table? When to Turn Off

What seems like a simple matter of etiquette gets a little complicated.

Our phones follow us everywhere, always beeping and blinking at us, even if not especially at times when our attention should be focused elsewhere.

In some cases, putting a phone down is a matter of safety. Texting while driving, for example, puts lives at risk. Life-or-death situations aside, using a phone at the wrong time is more of a faux pas.

Take meal times, for instance. Is it ever really appropriate to use your phone at the dinner table? Rather than let this question split families over simple breaches of etiquette, University of Michigan researchers instead sought an answer by surveying 1,163 people ages 8 to 88. The full study is available here (PDF).

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Whether phones are acceptable at the table isn't quite a cut-and-dry issue for the survey respondents. Instead, the consensus reached suggests that what's "on the table" so-to-speak largely depends on who's using the phone, what she or he is using it for, and who else is at the table.

Phone use by adults is viewed as more appropriate than it is for children, but there's a bit of a bell curve in terms of how that works. Mobile phones at meals are seen as most fitting for those in their mid-20s, but that perception declines for anyone on either side of that age range.

Texting and phone calls were viewed as more appropriate that activities such as surfing the Internet or checking Facebook. The researchers speculate this might because texting and talking on the phone tend to the brief activities.

Finally, a child's presence at a table generally decreases the acceptability of anyone using a device during meals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, respondents most engaged with their phones were the ones least likely to view it as an inappropriate behavior during dinner.

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While using a phone during a family meal might at first glance appear to be a small matter of etiquette, the University of Michigan team put the issue in a larger context. "Mealtimes are especially important in families as mechanisms for children's socialization into language, customs and social expectations," the authors write.

A 2013 study out of McGill University found that regular family dinner provided mental health benefits for adolescents, even if there was some resistance with actually talking to parents. Previous studies have also found that family meals encourage healthier eating habits and decrease risk of obesity.

At the core of a family meal is time shared with the group, but fiddling with a phone is an activity that isolates one person. However appropriate a device may or may not be during meals, spending all that time on the phone defeats the purpose of eating with family.

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