At our house, the dinner table is a device-free zone. There are, however, occasional challenges to our equanimity. For instance, my husband and I might debate something that could easily be resolved with a quick fact-check. He will offer to ask Siri, with just enough wistfulness in his voice to let me know that he wants me to say, “Yes, please do.” But I don’t.
My daughter’s phone, always within reach, may buzz with a text. She’ll reach reflexively, but after stealing a look at me will murmur, “Probably not important,” and pull her hand back.
Growing up, there was a television on the kitchen counter. It was there, ostensibly, so my mother could watch the news while she made dinner, or keep an eye on developing weather patterns. But when there’s a television in the kitchen, it insidiously displaces family members as the focus of attention. In my own home, there is no television in the kitchen.
My husband uses his iPhone to hide in plain sight, an ostrich-like behavior that works nonetheless. My daughter, who was given her first phone when she began to walk alone to middle school, learned quickly that it could replace her parents for virtually everything, even as her teachers were explaining that Wikipedia wasn’t valid source material for homework.
My phone is invariably in some other room when I hear it ring, beep, or chirp, which is not to say that I don’t depend on it as much as anyone. I use it to send texts that say I’m on my way and spoken directions that let me keep my eyes on the road while I get there. I check the weather and play the occasional game of Cribbage, but there’s not much that it can offer that outweighs my desire to engage with my husband and child.
Families found ways to make themselves unavailable to each other long before smart phones arrived. They buried themselves in work; hid behind newspapers; shushed each other when the TV was on. Smart phones, however, create the most effective barriers. They should come with warnings, like cigarettes. Beware, this object may impair your ability to appreciate your family.
It’s time to put down your phone—and talk.