How Much is Too Much?

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SCREEN TIME ADVICE FROM LOCAL PROFESSIONALS

It’s a minor miracle that we overlook almost every single day, one that would have been the stuff of science fiction a couple decades ago: A small device that fits in your pocket and puts all the collected knowledge of mankind at your fingertips. A device that connects you to every single person on the planet.

In principle, anyway, that’s how it’s supposed to work. In reality, smartphones give us knowledge without wisdom. They give us connection that, ironically, isolates. And, as growing research is showing, smartphones ultimately might do more harm than good.

“Just like we have warning signs on alcohol and some drugs and tobacco products, we should probably consider a warning about screen usage because there are so many negative effects,” said clinical psychologist Dr. Lori Whatley. A resident of Bluffton and author of the book “Connected & Engaged: How to Manage Digital Distractions and Reconnect with the World Around You,” she has spent 25 years practicing psychology — the past 10 focusing specifically on the impact devices have on our habits.

And what she’s found is remarkable. There are the hidden dangers you might not think about, such as the blue light from your device’s screen disrupting your body’s melatonin production and disrupting your sleep. Then, of course, there are the more obvious dangers — like our addiction to having our phones with us at all times.

“There was one study where kids were given a test and were allowed to keep their phones on the corner of their desk. The next day they were given the exact same test, but the instructor picked up all their phones and put them in a basket,” Whatley said. “The students felt lost and insecure (without their phones) and scored a letter grade lower than when they had their phones in sight.”

Most adults, at least, can remember a time when smartphones — and cellphones in general — weren’t so prevalent, so it’s often easier for us to recognize when it’s time to put the phone down. Children are a different story.

“We have normalized some pretty terrible behaviors in our culture. Go out to a restaurant and look around at families that hand toddlers a phone to play with while they socialize. They’re missing a wonderful opportunity to teach their kids to socialize,” Whatley said. “Then the kid gets to high school and the parents wonder why their child doesn’t have any friends. Their friend is that iPad you handed them.”

Local pediatrician Dr. Alicia Salyer has seen the impact these devices have on children firsthand.

“The current standard pediatric recommendation is to avoid screen time as much as possible with babies and toddlers,” she said. “Kids whose parents spend time on the floor with them face to face develop speech at a better rate than babies who spend time with screens — even if they’re just watching educational videos.”

A child’s ability to handle screen time grows as they age, but even then Salyer suggests moderation.

“The analogy I like to make is that screen time is kind of like dessert,” she said. “You have to earn it with good behavior, and you get it in small amounts.”

In general, Salyer recommends parents swap a book for a device and play an audio book on long car trips rather than a movie. As of this writing, children are often spending more time at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, and regulating screen time in the home takes on a different level of importance.

“We’re definitely in uncharted territory with respect to children at home,” Salyer said. While every parent should take responsibility for their child’s screen time during this crisis, she recommends, at the least, building structure and setting a schedule so the child is not spending hours at a time in front of a screen. Instead, kids should be getting outside when possible and then using screens responsibly.

“Technology is a tool. You can use it,” she said. “For some, this can be a great opportunity to do something constructive with the internet … but definitely keep that time structured.”