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Screen time: How smartphones really affect our bodies and brains

If you believe the headlines, screens are supposed to warp our skeletons, damage our mental health and alienate us from our families. But the evidence paints a more nuanced picture

Technology

25 September 2019

By Douglas Heaven

Michal Bednarski
YOU’LL get square eyes!” my mother used to say as I sat for hour after hour glued to the TV. I ignored her, of course. It was just something parents said. Fast-forward a few decades and now I’m the parent. My 5-year-old lives in a world where screens aren’t fixed pieces of furniture, but lie around on the kitchen table, on the sofa, by the bed, constantly accessible. You can’t even avoid them by going outside. “Screens are not only in our pockets, they’re on billboards, buses and bins,” says Tim Smith, a psychologist at Birkbeck, University of London.
The concerns have multiplied with the screens. In the past decade, we have heard that they will rewire our brains, strip us of cognitive abilities and damage our mental health. Many of us feel more distracted by them, feeling grumpier, guiltier and more tired as a result. The list of ills makes square eyes sound benign.
So should we take these concerns more seriously? Given the amount of time so many of us spend with our lit-up devices, it is an important question.

The trouble is, many of the most emphatic answers are the least reliable. Smartphones and tablets are not only TVs, they are chat rooms, shopfronts, banks and photo albums. We use them to work and play, to record physical activity and monitor sleep. We can look up peer-reviewed papers or scroll through anti-vaxxing forums, crucial distinctions that disappear when we use the umbrella term “screen time”. As the fears grow and the debate becomes ever more …