(Time to run that Dolmio ad again. – Ed.)

 

If you have children, do you regulate their use of smartphones? In particular, what do you do about smartphones when you sit down for a meal together?  These questions came to mind when my wife told me about a little episode she’d witnessed in a restaurant one evening last week. 

The mother and father sat on either side of the daughter, who was perhaps 11.  Shortly after they got there, all three got out their smartphones, and each person escaped into a different electronic world.  The parents actually put down their phones and started a conversation after a while over the girl’s head, but she held onto her phone till the food came, and after she was finished eating she picked it up again. 

In the lobby of the restaurant we’d passed a lady who was singing pop tunes and accompanying herself on the accordion. (This is Canyon Lake, Texas, you understand, not New York City.)  Later in the evening, the singer picked up a hand puppet and went around entertaining guests who had brought along their children.  According to my wife, the puppet struck out with the smartphone girl, who looked up uncomprehendingly and then went back to her phone.  Evidently, live entertainment can’t compete with electronic media, at least in that particular girl’s world. 

When a new technology gets adopted as widely and rapidly as smartphones have, there is always at least a theoretical concern that some long-term effect that hasn’t shown up in pilot marketing tests will pop up later to surprise and harm us.  The worst case like this from history I can think of was the thalidomide crisis of the 1960s. 

Thalidomide was a drug introduced in West Germany in 1957 and marketed as, among other things, a treatment for morning sickness in pregnant women.  While it appeared to help, it took several years for doctors to figure out that if a woman took it early enough in her pregnancy, thalidomide caused severe birth defects: deformed or missing arms and legs, facial defects, and other disabling problems.  Although thalidomide is still available and prescribed for certain conditions such as cancer, the medical community knows to avoid any possibility of its use by women who could be pregnant. 

If something as bad as the thalidomide episode was going to happen with kids using smartphones, I think we’d probably know by now.  Nearly two billion such devices are out there, and a survey in Britain showed that more than half of eleven-year-olds use their own smartphone.  But not every technological problem can be studied with surveys and statistics.

What my wife witnessed in that restaurant was the clash of tradition and something else—”modernity” isn’t the right word, nor is “technology.”  One way to put it was expressed by a friend of mine, Bruce Hunt, who is a historian of technology. We talk a lot about “cyberspace” without always knowing quite what we mean by it.  His definition of cyberspace is this: “Cyberspace is where you are when you’re on the phone.”  At the time, he meant a traditional POTS phone (Plain Old Telephone Service), but saying that all three members of the family were in cyberspace before the food arrived is a pretty accurate statement.  So it was a clash between traditional space and activities, and whatever each individual happened to be doing in cyberspace.

By traditional, I mean nothing more than activities that have gone on more or less the same for a long time.  There have been restaurants and inns and families eating in them as long as there have been civilizations, I suppose.  And the same goes for live entertainers, going all the way back to cave men who put on masks and danced around the campfire.  Just because a thing has been done a long time doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good—it’s just durable. 

When it comes to a family eating meals together, though, you can find studies that correlate all sorts of good things with families who eat together at least five nights a week.  Their kids are less likely to get involved in drug and alcohol use, they make better grades, and they feel closer to their parents.  I don’t know whether the studies were fine-grained enough to notice how often smartphones were brought to the table, but it doesn’t take a PhD to tell that a family meal without smartphones is going to allow more opportunities for interpersonal interaction than one with them. 

The age at which a child should gain access to a smartphone is a question each parent has to decide.  Not having children myself, I have never had to make that decision, but I hear that it’s a hard one to make.  Like driving, watching R-rated movies, and drinking alcohol, using smartphones is something that adults are free to do, and it’s a judgment call on the part of parents as to when a child is mature enough to use one responsibly. 

But the little drama in the restaurant made me think that the family that brings their smartphones to the dinner table is missing something valuable that has no corporate-sponsored PR in its favor, no guaranteed payoff, and no particular immediate harm that results when it goes missing.  It’s the chance to be with other people, in the time-honored sense of devoting one’s embodied attention to the experience of the real, actual bodily presence of other human beings.  The very name “media” means “that which goes between,” and anything between us can separate us as well as bring us together. 

So I’m not going to issue any blanket condemnations of smartphones at the dinner table. 

But I would ask parents to consider first how you use your smartphone and what kind of example you are setting for your children to follow.  Do you let it interrupt quality time with your spouse or children?  Or do you put it away at specific regular times, and devote your full attention to other members of your family?  Children have a powerful built-in instinct that says, “Whatever mommy or daddy does is okay,” and if you tell your son to put away his smartphone at the dinner table and then whip yours out when it goes off, you’ve just wasted your breath.  The kids won’t always be young, and you won’t always be around to talk with them.  Do it while you have the chance.

Sources:  I referred to an article on the website PsychCentral by Amy Williams entitled, “How Do Smartphones Affect Childhood Psychology?” at http://psychcentral.com/lib/how-do-smartphones-affect-childhood-psychology/, and a rather touching essay on the benefits of family meals by Cody C. Delistraty in The Atlantic online edition for July 18, 2014 athttp://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/the-importance-of-eating-together/374256/, as well as the Wikipedia article on thalidomide.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...