In Useful Shame: Countering Junk Food and Smartphone Addiction, I looked at how social norms, manners, and shame have successfully guided cultural behavior with far more fluidity, elegance, and success than legal intervention. As society sprints towards an era of tech-addicted sedentary living and mass obesity (a 2016 Harvard study predicted that of those between ages two and 19, 57% would be obese by the time they were 35), culture is the only force with the power to pull humanity towards fulfilling behavior. We’ve seen this develop in regard to alcohol and can use that model to build more constructive social norms.
Alcohol abuse peaked during its prohibition. Since becoming legal again in 1933, culture has adopted a broad array of norms and expectations that guide behavior and pull most sub-cultures towards contained, less destructive drinking habits.
There are still alcoholics and drunk drivers, but social pressure pulls mature adults away from drinking and driving, drinking before 5, drinking alone, or regularly abusing alcohol. In fact, any pattern of these behaviors would likely evoke judgments that said-drinker was immature, reckless, or that he “had a problem.”
Likewise, society needs a language of norms to combat the modern threats pulling the masses towards self-destruction. In a very real sense, society is facing an explosion of chronic drunkenness on junk food and smartphones.
Regardless of norms, there will still be the defiantly addicted users, yet unhealthy behaviors can become appropriately ignoble and socially unacceptable with a willingness to identify broadly constructive habits of responsible use.
People want to be happier, healthier, and in control of their smartphone use. They intuitively sense that their devices are isolating and that they need to get their eating habits under control.
Destructive habits aren’t from a lack of interest, but a lack of direction. People have no model or education to prompt better living habits. This is the brilliance behind our cultural aphorisms surrounding drinking norms.
The excesses of drinking weren’t combatted by studying cirrhosis and the effect of alcoholism on relationships. We detected these issues all on our own. Solutions came from clearly defining broadly good and broadly bad behaviors.
By nature, aphorisms will be overly broad. There are occasions where I drink alcohol before 5 pm. After all, I’m in bed by 8 pm and I prefer happy hour margarita prices. Still, the wisdom of this proverb serves most people on most occasions and it informs a very real understanding in all of us that drinking at breakfast might be a serious issue.
But yet, again, on rare occasions I love a brunch bloody mary. The rare exception does not disprove the proverb’s wisdom. This is actually a perk of the aphorisms. Their overly simplistic nature allows each local subculture to adopt them adaptably allowing more or less flexibility depending on their value structure.
Likewise, the social norms we’d create for eating and smartphone use will not always mark hard and fast optimal courses of action. Yet, overall, society would benefit immensely by adopting simple socially reinforced expectations for responsible eating and technology use.
We need to clearly define the best overall behaviors if we want to see positive changes. Even if these new norms are overly simplified they’ll be socially constructive and, thus, beneficial to anyone not so narcissistically hypersensitive as to expect their feelings to trump a social discourse on human flourishing.
Now, without further ado, here are my, admittedly simple, proposed norms for responsible technology use and eating.
Responsible Technology Norms
- No phones at the dinner table or any community meals. If a call or message comes in, ignore it. There could always be an emergency and yet, there never seems to be one. The off chance someone is calling or texting about something they deem time-sensitive does not warrant a habitual phone availability that interrupts connection and mindfully living your life.
- No phones out during social activities. Watching a television show, entertaining guests, or even a casual evening watching the sunset should be protected from the all-encompassing phone vortex. You’ll probably be amazed at the quality of conversation and the games that spring from this mental space. Use for pictures is an obvious exception.
- No phone scrolling while in locomotion. Enjoy a phone call or a podcast while driving or walking, but these seem like reasonable activities to partake of without looking down at your phone. Certainly, it seems that, most often, an inability not to check your phone in the walk from your car to the office might indicate an unhealthy degree of smartphone addiction.
- No work email on the phone while at home. By requiring that we go through the process of logging on to the computer to check work email, we can ensure that only necessary, previously planned work emails pull us away from being present at home. Furthermore, you reduce the likelihood of a work email infecting your evening with anxiety when there is nothing that can be done before you return to work.
- Create settings where the phone is silenced to all but your “favorites” an hour or two before bed. I’m 30. When I was growing up, in the age of landline phones, there was a general rule that you didn’t call people after 8pm. Likewise, we don’t ring doorbells late at night. This rule is simply the modern equivalent, creating necessary boundaries to allow us essential time unplugged.
- No phones in bed. They are deeply disruptive to quality sleep and general relaxation. Engage in conversation with your spouse or read without the compulsion to comment, share, or scan.
- Wait until 8th grade. Today we have a legal drinking age, but it is probably hardly necessary for most. Without one, culture would police the age kids drank to a more natural age where the privileges of use were slowly extended with maturity. If you were giving your 11-year-old access to the liquor cabinet, society would respond with resounding disapproval.
Likewise, there should be some sense of an appropriate age for smartphone use. My friends who have fourth and fifth-grade children report constantly having to hear whines about how everyone in their class has a smartphone. While nine-year-olds are certainly capable of hyperbole, the fact that they perceive this is terrifying.
As I’ve explained on many occasions, the smartphone is Pandora’s box. Early use will be deeply disruptive to activity levels, communication skills, creativity, ability to focus, and the development of a personality. Smartphones are an inevitability in their lives, but the great thing about being a parent is you get to dictate when they are given this addictive device.
I am a strong supporter of the Wait Until 8th Initiative. I’m confident that nearly all teachers, psychologists, and occupational therapists would agree that our youth would be far better off with social pressure dictating that kids did not get a smartphone until 8th grade.
Responsible Eating Norms
Confronting eating norms is far trickier because these destructive habits have been ingrained for so long. To raise the idea of publicly condemning a daily Pop-Tart or Frosted Flakes breakfast is to ignore the reality that push-back will be tremendous.
We should face it anyway. The costs are too high and the only avenue for change is a willingness to stand against the insanity that currently entrenches most in lifelong nutrition-related strife.
The most practical steps seem to be to promote education and empower people to defend their beliefs. Tell your school board you think their cafeteria options are disgraceful and that selling fast food and cookies in the halls is irresponsible. Most of all, adopt these broad norms and begin to insist on how logical they are.
- Don’t eat factory-produced chemistry projects, except on occasion. The majority of foods and beverages that you eat should be minimally processed, whole foods that are available in nature. Preferably they come without a wrapper and if they have a wrapper, preferably there are very few ingredients, all of which you can pronounce. Also, if sugar is in the first three ingredients it is probably better defined as dessert.
- Dessert is not daily. Dessert is a wonderful, occasional treat. Daily use is abuse. Pop-Tarts, most cereals, most granola bars, and anything you put syrup on is a dessert/sweets.
- Don’t eat sweets alone—don’t have chips alone. This is similar to the norm of not drinking alcohol alone. Frequent compulsion should have some social inertia that pulls people up.
- Drink mostly water. Water accompanies each meal. Soda, juice, Gatorade, and the like are all desserts.
- There is no such thing as kid’s foods. Kid’s foods are probably deceptively unhealthy, inferior products. Certainly making them staples of our children’s diets seems to be a recipe for distortion.
To many, my norms will seem extreme, but for those willing to examine the issues closely, I’m confident these will strike as obvious. They are common sense for the common good.
Critics might counter, “What if people feel shamed by eating or using their smartphone in ways that deviate from these norms?” Well, that would be wonderful! They will either be pulled to more socially constructive behaviors or develop the ability to act in defiance of popular notions and not care what everyone thinks. Both are necessary developments for the good of all. Hypersensitivity can’t be honored if we wish to move society upward.
For all their vices, honor-shame cultures admirably identify values and pull behavior in that direction, whereas modern moral apathy celebrates how special everyone is independent of conduct. This is to our detriment. We must strive. Manners and norms can harness the power of honor cultures constructively.