Restaurants are a top location choice for dates and catching up with old friends. They provide time and space to talk. But even there, screen time is almost inevitable these days.

As restaurants embrace technology-based ordering systems, time spent at restaurants is increasingly packed with screens — a shift that may contribute to relationship dissatisfaction and record levels of depression, according to research conducted on screen time.

Before, in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, cellphones were generally regarded as distracting and off-putting to other customers. News sites like Forbes and CBS News reported on restaurants that went as far as banning cellphone use.

Cellphone dislike in the dining industry became a budding topic in 2006 when Gordon Ramsay banned cellphones in his three Michelin-starred restaurant, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Sixteen years later, Ramsay and others seem to have changed their tune.

Phones in restaurants are “the best thing that’s ever happened” to the restaurant industry, Ramsay said in March 2022, according to The Takeout.

Ramsay highlighted customers’ ability to use their phones to provide instant feedback. Customers can snap pictures and post reviews right when their food arrives.

But those aren’t the only uses for phones in restaurants. Most places have kiosks to order and pay on, complete online ordering services and QR codes for deals and coupons for added comfort. In addition to being low contact, all of these features have boosted customer satisfaction, Stanley Technologies notes, and therefore restaurants’ reputation and sales.   

In a restaurant setting, satisfaction is often tied to the speed of service, which technology like online ordering can boost. But satisfaction in relationships is more about time and attention, which helps explain why increased screen time in restaurants may be bad for couples.

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In a study conducted by Baylor University in 2015, 453 adults in the United States were asked if they had ever experienced a partner being distracted by cellphone usage while in their presence. This could be in any setting. Around half of those participating reported they had experienced a distracted partner.

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“In everyday interactions with significant others, people often assume that momentary distractions by their cellphones are not a big deal,” said Meredith David, one of the co-authors of the study, at the time. “However, our findings suggest that the more often a couple’s time spent together is interrupted by one individual attending to his/her cellphone, the less likely it is that the other individual is satisfied in the overall relationship.”

The more time spent engaged with technology at a restaurant or ordering food from home, the more it could detract from the time spent with a significant other or family member, leading to lower relationship satisfaction.

James A. Roberts, David’s co-author said, “These lower levels of relationship satisfaction, in turn, led to lower levels of life satisfaction and, ultimately, higher levels of depression.”

In other words, while good for the restaurant’s financial success, technological advances could turn into relationship woes for families and friends.

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