When You Can (and Definitely Can’t) Use Your Phone at the Dinner Table

A new study looks at smartphone use during mealtimes.

Photo by Xavier Arnau/Getty Images

It’s happened to practically everyone: either you’ve been caught using your phone at the dinner table, or you were the person being ignored while your friend or family member scrolled through Facebook at a restaurant. Now, a new study from the University of Michigan explores how people use their phones during meals, and how they feel when their dining companions do the same.

After surveying 1,163 people from around the world between the ages of 8 and 88, the researchers found that many people believed it is more appropriate to text or answer a phone call during a meal, rather than posting to or engaging with social media. “These results are interesting because they challenge the idea that using your phone during a shared meal is categorically inappropriate,” Carol Moser, the lead author in the study and a doctoral student at the University of Michigan School of Information, said in a statement. “What we find is that attitudes are much more nuanced than that. A quick text or even a phone call with your boss might be okay. Watching someone across the table thumb through their Facebook feed, that’s different.”

Attitudes can also vary based on who the culprit is. Most participants believe that it’s more appropriate for adults to be on their phones, rather than children. As young adults got older, they were more likely to approve of table phone use—peaking among those in their mid-20s. Researchers also found that those who tend to use their phone during mealtimes are typically more tolerant of others who do the same.

In an ideal world, it would be best to unplug during mealtimes with friends and family members, says Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas. “Overall, it really is distracting to use your phone at the table,” she says. “You want to give your dining companion your full attention and you want to show them respect by engaging—and you can’t really do that if you’re looking up and down from your phone.”

However, Gottsman agrees that some scenarios make using the phone unavoidable, like waiting for an important call from your boss, doctor, or family member. In that case, she recommends giving a heads up that you’re waiting for an important call and might need to step aside for a few minutes to take it. She also says it’s fine to use your phone to share a few photos with your dinner-mate—but not if you’re monopolizing the whole meal by sharing every photo from your latest vacation. “As long as both of you are interested they’re engaging in the conversation, it’s okay for a few minutes,” she says.

To curb the temptation of constantly checking your phone, Gottsman suggests removing it altogether: “If you’re not expecting a phone call, turn your cell phone off or put it in your bag or pocket. Most people can get away from their phone for an hour.” And if you’re dining with someone who is glued to their phone, politely ask them to use the mealtime to unplug and catch up (assuming, of course, that your boss or business client isn't the offending party—then you'll need to just let it go).

For more technology advice, check out these 7 commandments of email etiquette and social media rules every parent should know.