Person-to-person digital etiquette

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Upcoming local screenings of ‘Screenagers’

Hosted by the Coeur d’Alene School District’s Technology Department

Free, but RSVP requested at

Tuesday, March 20

6:30 to 8 p.m.

Riverstone Regal Cinemas

2416 N Old Mill Loop, Coeur d’Alene

Tuesday, April 17

6:30 to 8 p.m.

Hayden Discount Cinemas

300 W Centa Dr, Hayden

Our kids learn a lot about how to behave with other people by watching us. They see us listen instead of interrupt someone, smile at a cashier, embrace a friend. When we are often out in the social world with a cell phone in our hand, what are we teaching them about digital etiquette? For now, I am not talking about online interactions but rather person-to-person.

Etiquette sounds so prim and proper. If I could clarify more, it would be “nurturing relationships in the face of mobile technology.” But that is a bit long. How do we respect and give undivided attention to the people we are with when dopamine pumps (i.e. smartphones, tablets, etc.) are in our hands? It’s not easy, but I have some ideas to share. And as always I love hearing your ideas.

When Everyone Has a Phone But You Don’t

Last week I gave a talk for a school district in Coppell, Texas. A girl about 12 years old came to the microphone during the Q and A and said, “At my middle school kids can use their phone. We only get one break, and that is lunch. Well, all my friends are on their phones. I don’t have one, and I wish they would talk with me.”

My heart sank a bit but I smiled, and I asked her what she had tried. She didn’t have an answer so we brainstormed some ideas including asking her friends if they could try to put their phones away perhaps one day a week or for a time at the end of lunch.

I encourage parents to teach their children to put phones away when they are in a group of kids who do not have a phone. Maybe they won’t do it, but they are hearing from us what we think is a kind thing to do.

Give a Heads Up

If you are with someone and you decide you need to check your phone, a digital etiquette I love is to say something like “My apologies, (or heads up), but I have to check my phone for a second.” Or, something like “Can you excuse me, I just have to do this one thing quickly.”

Years ago I worked with my family to establish this etiquette so that when we are out together and someone has to check their phone, which we try not to do, we would give a quick heads up beforehand. I had a strong motivation to do this because when someone would turn to a phone, I never knew if they were planning on disappearing into their phone or if it was just for a quick thing. Not knowing meant I often snapped at them—and they didn’t like when I did that—and I didn’t like when I did that either.

Don’t get me wrong—we are not some family in the Jane Eyre novel constantly asking for permission, apologizing and sipping tea. We often don’t give warnings, but we are all aware of it, and we try to.

Keep Devices Off and Away for Meals

My family does not have devices out when we eat a meal together. The visual reminder of the device on the table can create pressure and desire to check messages and notifications and take our attention away from those right in front of us.

I have made sure to teach my teens about the benefits of putting phones away when they are at a table eating with friends. For example, they know the study about how the presence of a phone at the table increases the chances that conversations will be more superficial. So now when they are with their friends, they can joke around about that study and in a subtle way impart this knowledge to their friends. I am not sure of the outcome, but I hope that this all results in more phones off tables and in pockets.

That said, a couple months ago my son told me that he and his friends had all put their phones in the middle of the table at dinner and if anyone checked their phone they would have to cover the bill. He got this strategy from a teenager in Screenagers. It was fun to know he put it into practice.

For this week, invite your family or students to talk about digital etiquette. Digital etiquette continues to be a new landscape, and often kids see things that we don’t consider. There can even be etiquette about sharing video game controllers. So many interactions happen around tech all the time.

Here are some questions to get the conversation started:

• Have you seen anyone be particularly respectful when it comes to tech and social situations?

• What digital etiquette do you try to follow?

• How do you feel when you are talking to someone, and they pull their phone out in the middle of your conversation?


Delaney Ruston is a primary care physician and the documentary filmmaker behind “Screenagers,” a film that offers solutions on how adults can empower kids to best navigate the digital world and find balance in life.

This is from her blog “Tech Talk Tuesdays” published on

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