A few weekends ago I was sitting with my partner at one of our favourite St Kilda cafes. We couldn’t help but notice the scene at the table next to us.
A young father sat there with his toddler boy and his own older parents. The entire time we were there, the father was on his smartphone — just looking up to grumble at his parents occasionally.
A one stage his boy climbed up onto a bar stool beside them and proceeded to fall onto the floor with a crash. The dad finally put down his phone and picked up the boy who was screaming: “I want Mummy!”
While this may be a extreme example, it is also a telling one. It is an increasingly common sight to see couples, friends and families sitting in cafes not talking to each other but glued to their mobile screens, totally immersed in their technology.
But now, in response to this trend, some Australian businesses are taking the proactive step of banning smartphones and tablets in restaurants and cafes. And it’s not hard to understand why.
One popular Sydney Turkish-Mexican fusion cafe in Canterbury — Pazar Food Collective — recently decided to ban ‘electronic entertainment devices’after its owner, Attila Yilmaz, criticised nuisance diners in his restaurant on social media.
He was peeved that a couple’s children had drawn all over the restaurant’s napkins and table while their parents were presumably too distracted on their phones to notice.
Yilmaz says he decided to impose the technology ban (as well as barring colouring books, board games and building blocks) because he wanted families at his restaurant to engage with each other and appreciate the food experience more fully.
Many other Australian cafes have already imposed similar bans — including St James in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern where customers are rewarded with discounted food and drinks if they agree to hand over their smartphones.
The reality is that today, many diners are more preoccupied with snapping Instagram-worthy pictures of their meals than actually enjoying the experience of eating them. Other diners seem lost in the nether-worlds of playing games or responding to messages on Facebook rather than speaking with each other.
And current research bears this out. A survey called Truth about Tech concluded that nearly 50 percent of parents and 70 percent of teens feel the need to respond to texts and other social media notifications immediately.
The Silicon Valley based initiative is aiming to raise awareness about the negative aspects of constant connectivity and educating parents and kids about the addictive quality of mobile phones.
One British fast food chain, Frankie and Benny’s, has gone so far as to ban mobile phones in all its restaurants, placing shoe-box sized receptacles on tables and having staff actively encourage diners to place their phones inside.
A number of New York restaurants have long banned the use of phones — such as Batard in TriBeCa where owner John Winterman became so frustrated that he half-jokingly wrote on social media it was his duty to grab them by the scruff of their necks and introduce them to their dining companions.
You can understand these business owners frustration.
The sad truth is that once upon a timecafes were social places where the local community could come together for a good chat over a strong coffee and lovingly prepared meals – where strangers would become friends and connect with their local community.
But in recent times, you’re more likely to end up sitting at a table of strangers who keep their gaze fixed on flashing screens than engaging with other customers. The only conversation such customers will start with cafe staff is to ask the ubiquitous question: “Do you have wifi?”
While a technology ban may be a risky strategy for businesses worried about putting tech loving customers offside, in the long run such bans could lead to a more socially engaging dining experiences where people actually talk to each other.