The sight of drivers going 60 mph while checking their email should be enough to prove just how much of a hold smartphones have on our attention.

But if it’s not, there also this: By more than 4 to 1, Americans think it’s wrong to pull out a phone in a social setting, yet nearly all smartphone owners admit to doing just that on a regular basis.

We know that it’s rude, and that it takes focus away from the conversation happening right in front of us. We know because we don’t like it when it happens to us.

And yet we still can’t resist pulling the phone out for one quick look at email, then social media, then maybe a news site or two.

Nowhere is that more of a problem than at the dinner table, where people taking a meal together now often look instead like a group of strangers. How can you talk about the day when there’s Facebook to refresh?

It’s even more confounding out at a restaurant, where people are ostensibly paying to socialize with those at their table but instead often find themselves scrolling through Instagram — maybe even looking at photos of someone else’s dinner, in some other restaurant where friends aren’t really talking.

Portland Press Herald staff writer Meredith Goad reported this week that some restaurant owners in Maine have had enough. One in Bar Harbor went cellphone free four years ago after its owner looked out over the dining room and saw “all the heads were down.” At another, in Damariscotta, patrons on certain days receive a discount if they keep their phones in a sealed to-go container for the duration of their meal.

If you put your phone away, you won’t only please a chef or two — you’ll probably have a better time. While phones don’t ruin a meal, they do make it a less pleasurable experience, studies have found. Phone use distracts people and makes them less socially engaged — they make us miss the subtle facial and voice cues that shade conversation, and the eye contact that pulls us together.

The distraction is contagious too — if one person starts to scroll, others will too, and the whole table is likely to spend the meal interacting with a screen instead of the people across from them.

And just having the phone on the table can be a distraction, as it makes us think about work, or what we’re missing online.

There are, of course, good reasons to have a phone in view at the dinner table. Some people are on-call for work, or have a babysitter at home or loved one in crisis. Our phones bring us all manner of updates and notifications, not all of them that can be put off for an hour.

But for everyone else most all of the time, the phone can go away, if not in a taped-up container than at least in a coat pocket. Whatever’s online will still be there after you pay the check.

 


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