Have mobile phones ruined the dining experience?

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In a world where we rely on our mobile phones more than ever before, it’s no surprise that we struggle to put them down even while we are out for a meal. With the all-too-tempting presence of social media sitting idly in the background, it’s too easy to become distracted when your phone lights up and buzzes on the table, especially when there’s a lull in the dinner conversation. 

Studies have even shown that being on your phone in a restaurant decreases ‘diner enjoyment’, according to an article published by TIME. The study was set up by Elizabeth Dunn and Ryan Dwyer, researchers from the University of British Columbia, and monitored diner satisfaction in two groups of participants – one group with their mobile phones on the table and one group without. 

“You see people in restaurants all the time who are sitting across the table from each other, and instead of staring at each other, they’re staring at their phones,” said Ryan. “We were really curious: Is it having an impact on people’s social interactions, how much they’re enjoying the time they’re spending with other people?” 

Neither group were aware their phone use was being monitored, and the results found “a clear dip in pleasure among the phone users — who, just by virtue of having their phones on the table, ended up using them for an average of 11% of the meal.” 

After seeing this trend of diners on their phones growing, some restaurants have even tried to combat it themselves with incentives. “I’ve been in the hospitality industry for 20 years. Over time I saw phones intruding during the meal more and more,” said restaurant owner Markus Stauder to Business Insider Australia. “I just want people to enjoy the food and drinks. People miss half the night because they’re on their phone.” 

Markus owns Contact Bar and Kitchen in Woolloomooloo, Australia, and after seeing how mobile phones were dominating his customers’ dining experiences, he decided to do something about it. He decided to introduce lockers for guests’ mobile phones, offering a complimentary glass of wine for anyone willing to go without it during their meal. “People feel a little bit naked at first, which you can see even when they first sit down,” says Mark, but he claims it’s been a hit with his customers. “So far we’ve had a 100% success rate. They love it.”

 And Markus isn’t the only one. The Fat Boar, Wrexham offers customers a 25% discount if they also agree to locking up their phone during their meal. “I am the first to admit that I am constantly glued to my mobile phone,” said Rich Watkin, The Fat Boar’s director. “We all have busy lives and they can be a fantastic way to keep in touch with everything we need to run our hectic schedules.

 "But I couldn't help but think it would be nice to encourage some of our loyal customers to make the most of an evening out with us and escape from all the constant 'bing bing' of information which these little devices throw at us.”

 It’s incentives like these that are changing the way we dine together, or rather changing them back to the way they were before. For hundreds of years, dining was considered a formal occasion. You would say grace and celebrate the privilege of having food on the table and your loved ones to share it with. But we are in a new age, and our busy, metropolitan lifestyles can mean that meal times are less of an event, and often just a quick re-fuelling between meetings, exercise, looking after the kids and all our other responsibilities.

 But are mobile phones entirely to blame for this change? Although many diners will scroll through newsfeeds and update statuses mid-meal, is this necessarily a bad thing for businesses? We know how important social media and sharing online is to millennials, with some restaurateurs actually suggesting it. Whether that’s encouraging diners to upload foodie snaps with branded hashtags, checking-in to the venue on social media or even ordering via an app, like Wetherspoons recently introduced. For millennials, being able to share your experience online is half the fun of dining out, and it’s this acceptance of technology and movement with the times that keeps restaurants from falling behind the curve.

 Our mobile phones are a huge part of our world, so perhaps the answer doesn’t have to be removing them from the restaurant table altogether but finding a way to harmoniously incorporate them into the dining experience. I am a firm believer that we should abstain from mindless, tapping away on our devices when we’re out for dinner, but at the same time, I believe letting mobile phones play an active role in how we dine could create a powerful dining experience.