In defense of phones at the dinner table

In defense of phones at the dinner table

Smartphones are a tempting distraction, and nothing frustrates elderly relatives like teens texting under the table. The conventional wisdom is that our various smart devices suck the life out of what little time we have with our loved ones and that we need to have the discipline to put them down and focus on being present. But as modern communication advances year to year, it’s worth reconsidering how they’re changing the way we connect with one another.

Even now, the put-your-damn-phone-down school of critique is alive and well. The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey wrote a post in time for Thanksgiving titled “Holiday PSA: Unless you want your family to hate you, turn off your cellphone.” She writes that the quality of our quality time declines the more attention we devote to our screens.

It’s a common-sense point of view: We have only so much listening capacity, and when we distribute it elsewhere, the people around us notice and take it personally. The holidays are reserved for relatives, leading Dewey to advise, “For once, resist the urge. Not only because it will save you the ennui of a hundred thousand Instagrammed turkeys but because your family will like you better for it too.”

Dewey’s formulation assumes that our families are inconvenient and often annoying but valuable nonetheless. She takes it for granted that we want to escape these “in-laws, kooky aunts or other semi-estranged relations,” but plenty of people have the opposite problem. At The New York Times, Claire Maldarelli writes about college freshman Madeline Heising, who Skyped in to her Virginia family’s Thanksgiving dinner from her dorm room in Massachusetts. Videoconferencing makes it easier and cheaper to be with the people we want to see, regardless of where they are. That doesn’t mean our phones are good instead of bad, but even if these kinds of technologies do have a net negative impact on our nuclear and extended family relations, it means something more than that young people are easily distracted.