Food is better without mobile phones being present, research finds

Research carried out by digital agency, Digital Blonde, has shown that meals where a mobile device isn’t present are significantly better than when one is on the table.

The agency set a secret experiment at Social Media Week, which saw 25 strangers, varied in ages, invited to attend a special four-course dinner in an unusual setting, a disused tube carriage.

The unique surroundings, some special props and the table setting meant guests immediately began sharing their experiences online. The first course came and diners photographed this too, the hashtag #SMWfoodpsych began filling twitter feeds and to everyone it seemed this was a successful Social Media Week meet-up.

However, just before the second course came, participants were asked to put their phones in a box in the centre of the table for the rest of the evening. A team of researchers then documented how the dynamic and interaction changed when mobile phones were no longer part of the dining experience.

Studies have shown that the presence of a mobile device during a social interaction changes the nature of the conversation and Digital Blonde was aiming to see if the same was true of the dining experience.

The researchers observed the varied reactions from diners, which ranged from noticeable anxiety to anger that they would not be able to photograph and share the evening. The experiment participants were asked to complete a survey documenting their feelings, which revealed there were also some immediate feelings of relief and contentment once phones were put away.

Categorising the emotions felt by diners showed that fear was the most common emotion experienced after being asked to go without phones, cited by 40.9% of people. This was followed by 31.8% of people actually experiencing feelings of joy. All the participants agreed that the conversation flowed better without the presence of phones.

Researchers found that in the absence of mobile phones, guests appeared to talk more about the food and its flavours. Some commented on how they took time to notice the smell and aroma of the food, something they would not normally have done. The majority of respondents felt that they engaged and connected with other diners more deeply than they would have done with their phones present. Many people noted that there were no pauses or interruptions for social media and phone use, helping conversation to continue naturally. There were also many comments in the survey about the personal and in-depth nature of some of the discussions, with people feeling they shared more than they might have had they had access to their phones.

During Social Media Week, a Digital Blonde panel session featuring chefs and experts from the fields of psychology, food marketing and social media gathered to debate the findings.

On the subject of banning phones in restaurants, almost 70% of experiment’s participants were against it, however over 80% felt that people should put their phones away at the table.

When it came to what guests missed the most about not having a phone during the dining experience, sharing via Twitter and Instagram were highest on the list. However there were also comments on how hard it was to have a conversation without having phones to Google relevant points and share existing content such as photos with fellow diners.

Karen Fewell, the founder of Digital Blonde and The Food Marketing School, said; “We wanted to see if the phenomenon of photographing food and sharing online meant diners were missing out on some of the aromas, taste and overall enjoyment of a dish. If removing technology from the table could heighten the senses and enhance the dining experience. And if so, should restaurants impose rules on diners or insist they put their phones away to protect the dining experience.

“Without many of us realising it, mobile phones have become a central part of the eating out experience, whether as a conversational aid, a connection to the rest of the world or as a way to share the occasion with others. While all of these can be seen as positives, I truly believe that the best moments in life happen around a table when we are eating and drinking with the people we love. I was intrigued by what costs there may be to our in-the-moment enjoyment of a meal and our emotional connection to others around the table.”

To see the full findings and insights from the Digital Blonde/Social Media Week research including quotes, photos, statistics and graphs visit Slideshare

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Mairi Clark

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