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In defense of smartphones at the dinner table

New technology can free us from a narrow concept of family

January 3, 2015 2:00AM ET

Along with turkey, tinsel and debates about Zionism, the holidays are now an annual occasion to reconsider the relationship between family and communication technology.

Smartphones are a tempting distraction, and nothing frustrates elderly relatives like teens texting under the table. The conventional wisdom is that our various smart devices suck the life out of what little time we have with our loved ones and that we need to have the discipline to put them down and focus on being present. But as modern communication advances year to year, it’s worth reconsidering how they’re changing the way we connect with one another.

Even now, the put-your-damn-phone-down school of critique is alive and well. The Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey wrote a post in time for Thanksgiving titled “Holiday PSA: Unless you want your family to hate you, turn off your cellphone.” She writes that the quality of our quality time declines the more attention we devote to our screens.

It’s a common-sense point of view: We have only so much listening capacity, and when we distribute it elsewhere, the people around us notice and take it personally. The holidays are reserved for relatives, leading Dewey to advise, “For once, resist the urge. Not only because it will save you the ennui of a hundred thousand Instagrammed turkeys but because your family will like you better for it too.”

Dewey’s formulation assumes that our families are inconvenient and often annoying but valuable nonetheless. She takes it for granted that we want to escape these “in-laws, kooky aunts or other semi-estranged relations,” but plenty of people have the opposite problem. At The New York Times, Claire Maldarelli writes about college freshman Madeline Heising, who Skyped in to her Virginia family’s Thanksgiving dinner from her dorm room in Massachusetts. Videoconferencing makes it easier and cheaper to be with the people we want to see, regardless of where they are. That doesn’t mean our phones are good instead of bad, but even if these kinds of technologies do have a net negative impact on our nuclear and extended family relations, it means something more than that young people are easily distracted.

In her new book, “Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism,” London School of Economics sociology professor Judy Wajcman examines the experience of time as lived with, around and through Internet-connected technologies. She takes a neutral scholar’s view of behavioral change, concerned more with who is doing what and when than with whether these new practices meet Emily Post’s standards of etiquette. Along the way, Wajcman dispels some popular misconceptions about the way we pass our time today, including the idea that families don’t spend it together. Rather, moms and dads are spending much more time with their children, engaged in a practice social scientists call intensive parenting. Kids, on the other hand, have less free time and space to explore and grow on their own.

It’s tempting to think of the family as something natural, a sanctified body violated by buzzing gadgets. But the nurturing home is a technological advancement too and a relatively new one at that. In his book “Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character,” Claude S. Fischer dates the advent of the emotionally co-dependent family to the late 19th century, when the decline in servants, child labor and infant mortality left mothers charged with their children’s development. 

Commentators such as Dewey claim the stakes for an uninterrupted family dinner are low, that dealing with our relatives can be unpleasant and involuntary but nothing more serious than that.

“Husbands, family and community — and they themselves — expected them to make homes into ‘havens in a heartless world’ and to lovingly mold children into superior adults,” he writes. “The emerging Victorian model thus demanded intense emotional commitment from all.” Kids turned from sin machines that needed to be kept busy with work and caning into balls of clay for their parents to shape in a family of blood relatives.

Internet-connected technologies are, according to Wajcman, having a noticeable effect on the way we carry out kinship. Our screens and keyboards let us access people on the basis of desire and affinity rather than proximity or relation, whether we’re stuck with our family at dinner or alone in a cold dorm. Digital connections lend us a measure of control over whom we talk to and when, and if people use these technologies to avoid their family members, maybe they just don’t like their relatives that much. Such technologies “make possible new combinations of previously distinct temporal zones, new forms of mediated intimacy and new ways of doing family,” Wajcman writes. Kinship experienced through a phone isn’t necessarily any less legitimate than kinship experienced through secular holiday cookies or religious traditions or bloodlines. It is, however, more optional.

Commentators such as Dewey claim the stakes for an uninterrupted family dinner are low, that dealing with our relatives can be unpleasant and involuntary but nothing more serious than that. For some, it’s not so simple. On Dec. 28, trans Ohio teen Leelah Alcorn posted her suicide note to Tumblr, explaining that her Christian parents wouldn’t accept her as a woman and had cut her off from other avenues of support. “They took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me [from] getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends,” she wrote. “I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parents’ disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.” Before it was removed, her post received more than 200,000 responses.

It’s too simplistic — wrong, even — to assume our current family model is essentially benign. “New ways of doing family,” as Wajcman puts it, can be a matter of mental health, physical and emotional safety — even life and death. Intimacy, after all, isn’t all lost through mediation, and family can be something more than the people we’re trapped with at the holiday table every December.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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