Unpopular opinion: I adore the food at Cornell Dining and still retain a meal plan with them as a senior. As a result, I’ve spent quite a bit of time at the various dining halls across campus and I’m noticing the increasing plethora of people on their phones while eating, usually alone. It seems to be a wider phenomenon. Even my dad does it too now at home — and recently I called him out for it. “You’re using a phone after I took a five hour-long bus trip to see you? Are you kidding me?” I asked, while taking his iPhone 6S+ away, now regretting that I chose it for him at the T-Mobile Store. At Cornell and other college campuses, however, distracted eating is clearly an everyday phenomenon. On different occasions at Appel, for example, I’ve counted 8 out of 10 people at my table on their phones. They also sure don’t look particularly happy.
I used to do it too, so I know the urges, the reasons why. First, we are so programmed to be with technology. Perhaps even more important, however, is that phones help to escape the dread of eating alone, the double whammy of feeling lonely and looking lonely in front of others. Like all other addictions or false panaceas, the small momentary relief, however, leads to many high long-term costs.
To begin with, you are literally not eating well with your phones. Physiologically, stimuli from a Facebook feed or video on your phone literally activates stress in your body. The parasympathetic system, which is supposed to calm you down when you’re eating, fades away, while the sympathetic side takes over, usually in situations of stress. Because we were not evolved to be eating while running running from a sabre-tooth tiger, our digestive capabilities lowered as a result. Less digestive enzymes are released and less nutrients are being broken down and absorbed from the food. Psychologically, distracted eating has been shown to be correlated with overeating and worse memory of what you ate, not to mention general unhappiness.
The opportunity cost of missed social connections is also very high. Once I’ve made a promise to myself to stop using my phones at dining halls, I have actually had a good deal of pleasant conversations with strangers I sit across from at Appel. For example, I’ve met people from different majors and homes. Admittedly an East Coast liberal, I was surprised and glad to finally meet someone from West Virginia for the first time and get to know a little about their perspective. Having a phone in front of you eliminates these types of immersion opportunities, almost wholesale, and we are trapped in our echo chambers. For the many who completely focus on their phones, the dining hall has effectively changed from being a social space to an ocean of small, individual island-tables, where each student clings on to their device and servings. The buffet tables are the shore, where students shuttle to and fro with little boats of food, barely acknowledging each others’ presence.
Not eating with your phone is also another buffer against the further intrusion of technology into our lives. Luddism is silly, given the way of the world, but I do believe in preserving time away from screens. The science is not completely in on the issue, but take it from people who know technology a lot more than me. Over in Silicon Valley, parents are making sure to enroll their kids in fancy private schools that minimise screens and technology.
Admittedly, I still do it sometimes, usually for work. The personal line I draw where I will take out my phone is read an urgent email or reply to someone’s text, but no more. And for those situations, I try to pause my eating, complete the task on my phone and then get back to my food rather than pointlessly try to multitask. For those who can’t sit still or bear to eat alone in a large public setting, even reading a book or newspaper is a way better alternative. You look smarter, less insecure, learn to focus, and don’t strain your eyes.
Try it for a day; just try it. A campus with so many similarly-aged young people should not be a collection of islands. Eating has been conducted as a social encounter for eons and using your phone while doing it is no answer to the modern epidemic of increasing isolation and busy schedules. And by literally acknowledging the world around you, maybe you’d make a friend or two. So please: put down the device, tower above the noise, and truly enjoy your meal for thirty minutes. It’ll taste better.
Matthew Lam is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Despatch Box appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.