Phone at Dinner Table?

Is Phone Part of the Plating?

A cartoon of a table place setting in 1952 versus in 2022. A phone and a TV remote have been added in 2022 to the traditional setting of fork, plate, knife and spoon. Toon by Bob Englehart.
Phone at Dinner Table? Artist: Bob Englehart, 2022

Dear Ms Smartphone: The cartoon you had on Instagram this week got me thinking. It shows a  place setting from the 1950’s with a plate, a knife, and a fork.  Next to it is a contemporary  place setting with a plate, a knife,  a fork, also  a TV clicker and mobile phone.  Here’s my question: If you had to choose, would it be a phone at the dinner table or a TV remote? Lee, Silver Spring.

Dear Lee:  First, recognition to the syndicated artist.  His name is Bob Englehart and his online bio says that he was born in 1945 in Indiana. That tells us that he  is a Boomer and has personally experienced the progression of the place settings. *

As to whether I would choose the phone or the TV remote, my first response is neither, but there will be exceptions! Reacting to the cartoon on Instagram, one follower notes that he does food photography so no meal is left unphotographed!  Short of that, we devalue our food and the people who prepared it when we let electronics intercede. There’s considerable research that shows the quality of conversation between two people suffers when one of them puts a phone on the table, even if the phone is turned off. The presence of the phone takes people out of the immediate moment. 

Electronic media, whether TV or phone, moves our awareness away from the meal being served, i.e., the present moment. Alternatively, you could use mealtime as a go-to exercise in mindfulness. And, the best thing is that you get to  practice it three times a day. To begin, you acknowledge and give thanks for the water and soil and sun, the farmers, the harvest, and the workers in the supply chain that help bring this food to your plate. 

When we eat in front of the TV or distract ourselves with our phone we are less mindful- we may forget to pay attention to the flavor of the food, how much has been eaten, and occasionally, whether we are satiated. There is a strong correlation (not causality) between spending more time on TV and obesity. For teens, more hours on video games and electronic media is associated with obesity. Most likely, there is a trigger-cue-behavior of engaging with media, distraction, and snacking. If we start doing this at the dinner table, does that habit follow us to the family room and other spaces where we use electronic devices?

But, back to the question you raised. I would choose the TV over the phone at the dinner table. TV is less of a one-to-one medium than the smartphone.  I personally have the day’s newspapers spread out at breakfast and lunch. Sometimes the TV show or newspapers will draw out a conversation, and create a more shared experience.   Mealtime should be an opportunity for families to reconnect, even if their conversation focusses on the cartoon! The presence of a phone implicitly says that a family member prioritizes something outside the room over the people who are present.

It’s been a while since I watched much over-the-air TV, but prime-time used to be filled with ads for snacks, sugar filled drinks, and higher fat foods. Today, these have been supplanted by ads for prescription drugs and pills. Is one healthier than the other? It might be a good idea if you do watch family TV together to draw attention to the content of these ads and talk through what screen-time is telling us about ourselves. If you follow the ads on your smartphone, they will be more personalized based on what you scroll for and spend time looking at. What content are they pushing? That might be a great discussion to have over the dinner table!

* Englehart’s  toon ran on the editorial pages of the Bay Area Newspaper Group  (Marin Independent) on 3/8/22). 

NoPhone Zone Party

A picture of a football and in the background the iconic HOLLYWOOD sign in the hills. This is for the Superbowl in LA, Feb. 2022/
NoPhone Zone Party photocredit:

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am invited to a Super Bowl party at a private club in Los Angeles and it should be a fun time. But I am wondering about the invitation. My friend says that I will need to leave my phone in a Yondr bag they provide, and the club will return my phone after the game. They call it a NoPhone Zone Party. I don’t see why they are making me do this! I always use my phone when I watch games on TV! Sean, Camarillo

Dear Sean: It sounds like you are going to be close to the action! For readers who don’t know: it’s the Rams vs. the Bengals, and a Yondr pouch “locks up” your phone when you enter a phone-free zone, like the party you were invited to. When guests arrive at the venue, phones and smart watches are placed in these proprietary, zipped pouches. As you exit, there’s staff with a tap reader to unlock the case.  That’s the essence of a NoPhone Zone Party.

The interesting question is why this club is enforcing a no-phone zone during the game. If they were part of the old Nielsen ratings, I would say it would be to get your undivided attention for those million dollar ++ ads or the half-time show. Today, I surmise it’s to get your focus in a more mindful and immediate manner.

Most likely the hosts want their guests to have personal interactions, not distant ones. Like you, many people watch television with a phone in hand- especially during sports. They talk aloud or send out pictures, text, and email.  A Nielsen poll from 2019 says that 73 percent of US adults use a digital device at least occasionally while watching TV, and 45 percent of those respondents do so “very often” or “always.” 

But, it’s not just about social media. The same poll says people use their phone while watching TV to look up information related to the content. In this case, what are the favored odds in this game and how are they updating?!

Betting on you and Them!

And that brings up another reason why phones might be barred from the Super Bowl event you are attending. Mobile betting is growing exponentially. Last month, New York State launched it and within four days the sites handled $603.1 million! (albeit, the Buffalo Bills were in the playoffs). It was convenient- no traveling to New Jersey or a casino to place the wager anymore.

It’s likely that your LA event planners are trying to keep you engaged in their space-  talking and interacting person-to-person, while you watch the big screen game. Perhaps it’s the first time since Covid restrictions began and they want to normalize relationships. Or, more speculatively, they have their own planning for a blow-out half-time show!

It’s been a while, but removing the phone is going to change the dynamics of this party. Instead of interacting outside the room, you will have to intermingle within the room and have a shared group experience. That’s a throwback! 


Speaking of throwback, a few days prior to SuperBowl XIV, the LA Rams General Manager commented that defensive end Jack Youngblood was a “throwback” because like other legendary players, he played through injuries and pain. More commonly, today throwback refers to wearing a jersey from a past year or era of your team. 

Who knows, perhaps that Yondr bag will be the throwback to Super Bowl LVI!

Metaverse for Dummies

Metaverse for Dummies. photo credit: Motley Fool

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Can you help me make sense of what is going on with all these headlines about the metaverse, say the metaverse for Dummies? This week the company Microsoft jumped in, but I was confused before then. I am middle-aged, a fan of Twitter and Facebook, and keep up with technology on my folding Samsung Z phone. A long time ago, I built a SimCity and then I played Minecraft with my kids. But I still don’t understand what is going on.  Is the metaverse another name for games?  Keach, Sausalito

Dear Keach: This coming week I am teaching on Zoom and the students and I both know there Is room for improvement.  While games and avatars grab our imagination today, we know there should be a better interactive tool for future online education, telemedicine, etc. So, here goes my own version of the metaverse for Dummies!

A working definition, still vague, is that the metaverse will emerge as a Web 3.0. The first commercial public phase, Web 1.0, circa (1989-1995) facilitated the transmission of information and emails. Then, Web 2.0 connected people, creating the sharing economy dominated by companies like Amazon and Facebook. For a more formal timeline, visit here. The metaverse, Web 3.0 will connect people, locations and things- sometimes in a fully virtual, 3D, synthetic environment. Metaverse will not be a single platform or a single technology, although Microsoft and Facebook are angling for that.

The devices we use to connect to this metaverse will not be handheld, like today’s phones. Sensors, special glasses, or implants on our body and clothing are more likely. And, given the history of many new devices and technology, it’s not surprising that they make an entry through less serious pursuits like games.  

Creating Scarcity:

The business model for the metaverse is still under development, but I want to sound a note of caution. When the Internet began, pioneer listserv users expected that it would democratize people and bring them together. Over the past ten years we have seen the Internet become factional and fractional. The tools of the metaverse- e.g. buying virtual clothing, real estate, and NFTs,  supersize that division IMHO. The graphic for today’s column comes from a Motley Fool article, which is titled, 3 Ways Metaverse Mortgages Will Affect Virtual Real Estate.” They encourage prescient investors to jump in today.

The Internet is boundless but new products, particularly NFTs, have a business model to create scarcity.  Those early adopters setting up the metaverse  hope to barter and sell these like physical assets. There is an interesting dynamic going on here: we all want more sustainable products, and they can sell us virtual products that reduce consumption and the need for physical resources. 

But, to answer your question more- why the metaverse? Why has Microsoft followed suit after Facebook? 

External Games:

First, you mentioned that you were an ex-gamer. Did you play a few videogames during Covid? Multitudes did. According to MarketWatch, videogames grew to $180 billion in revenue, and this remains larger than revenue from the global film industry ($100 billion) and from North American sports industries ($75 billion).  Even if the full metaverse is meta-years in the making, the seeds sprout today in the gaming industry. 

A second push for the metaverse comes from 5G networks and its faster, speedier communications. It is a frontier for programmers that lets them transfer more data at the same time, or in a shorter time and get prompter feedback. So the code they write, particularly for mobile devices, can be pushed in directions previously unimagined. Thinking forward, we need these metaverse innovations to have truly useful at-home robots, and safe, predictable out-of-home autonomous vehicles. 

Internal States:

A third reason the metaverse pushes forward has less to do with the world outside and more to do with our mental state and health. There has been a recent spate of concern, linking social media like Facebook with teen stress, anxiety, and addiction. A metaverse avatar has the potential to release the user from physical realities. Again, I am speculating, but will communications in the metaverse allow people with these challenges to step outside themselves, and experiment with different roles?  Erving Goffman, the famed sociologist, wrote that our everyday encounters are akin to a stage, where we don pretend masks to try-out impression management.  Today’s  avatars on iPhone messaging are a tiny creep into a future arena where we better manage or manipulate our time and interactions with strangers. 

As for the future of the metaverse, I will surely need to revise many points made here. Right now it seems like the metaverse is the playground of gamers and techies, but when it moves into the territory of DearSmartphone, you can be sure this will evolve, perhaps slouch, to DearSmartverse!

 Meanwhile, I stand ground that the infinite resources of the Internet should not be greedily divvied into coveted things that can then be bought and sold like physical assets. Thanks for your curiosity and question.