“Screenagers”: A Documentary

How to help our kids find balance in a technological world

In the documentary film Screenagers, Dr. Delaney Ruston asks her daughter, Tessa, what she would do if she had a smartphone.

“I’d be cool . . . and be able to look busy in awkward situations,” Tessa replies.

How many of us can relate to that as adults, as Solo Moms, as busy, frazzled people trying to stay connected in a sometimes-lonely world? Where we might once have taken refuge in, say, a book, now the ever-present screen presents its riches: from apps to texts with loved ones when we’re in uncomfortable social situations. And let’s face it, for Solo Moms tackling seemingly endless to-do lists, distractions such as computer games or television can be a godsend, keeping kids happily occupied when essential tasks that keep the house running, such as paying the bills, need to get done.

Screen time comes with a cost, though, and Screenagers examines not only what’s at stake but also the underlying reasons why we are drawn to screens in the first place. And it plumbs the science of how the constant use of devices, such as smartphones, affects the brain and mind.

In the film, Sherry Turkle, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discusses what developing minds and hearts have to lose by being connected at the hip to our phones and tablets. “When you are distracted by a device, you can’t have the conversations that would lead to the development of empathy and a sense of self,” she says.

Our brains are also physiologically affected. Nicholas Carr’s groundbreaking book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton & Company) warned back in 2011 that the interruptions posed by technology can literally reconfigure our brains. In the film, he clues us in as to why, even when we are aware of the costs, we crave more, not less, screen time. He discusses dopamine, a pleasure-producing brain chemical, and how it seems to be released when people find new information. “If you carry around a smartphone, you are always pulling it out and glancing at it because you want that release of the pleasure-producing chemical,” he says.

If that’s true for adults (ever notice how that little text bing can create a happy sort of anticipation?), it’s even more so for kids. Teenage brains release crazy amounts of dopamine, so that when their device buzzes and they see that something they’ve said or done has been “liked,” they get even more of a rush than their parents do.

And what does that mean for our kids? Ruston was inspired to make the film when she saw how her own kids interacted with technology. “My son wanted to play more video games and my daughter was always on social media,” Ruston told Forbes in early 2016. “I was at a loss. I found myself getting mad at them and then feeling guilty.”

Understanding the chemical effects of dopamine proved to be a turning point for her. “[K]nowing that [kids] are so pulled into these [devices] in a way that we can’t even understand has made me not be as angry at them, but realize there’s a lot more I need to do—as in my parenting,” she told PBS NewsHour. “I mean, it’s amazing that there’s many studies that look at MRI scans of the brain of kids who play a lot of video games, 20 hours or more of video games a week. And when they compare them to people who are addicted to, say, drugs or alcohol, their brain scans are similar. So, something is really happening on a physiological level. It’s not just psychological.”

In the film, Ruston chats with researchers studying what multitasking, specifically shifting quickly back and forth between digital devices, does to brain function. Young mice exposed to flashing sounds and lights that mimic screen time took three times longer or more to learn how to navigate a maze than nonexposed young mice. The troubling question, of course, is what rapid-paced media might do to a generation of children who have been exposed since birth. If effects are similar to what is seen in the mice, the news is disturbing, indeed.

“The worst thing a parent can do is hand over a smartphone and hope for the best,” Ruston told the New York Times. “But parents often feel like trying to set limits is pointless, that the cat is out of the bag, tech is everywhere. I hear all kinds of excuses. But kids’ brains aren’t wired to self-regulate. They can’t do it without you . . . and you’ll see in the film, kids consistently told me that they want rules around their screen time.”

Ruston advocates having set guidelines. “Two of our rules are no phones in bedrooms at night, and no phone use in the car. We use alarm clocks and talk with each other instead. Those are the easy ones. For the rest of the ‘rules,’ and what you’ll see after a few painful mistakes on my part in the film, is that it’s best to create a contract with your kids’ input.”

Solo Moms may be wondering how realistic Ruston’s advice is for a single parent trying to steal moments to get things done—or even sleep. As Solo Mom of two Melissa Stephenson says in Taming the Screen Monster,” screens “allowed me time to check a few extra things off my never-ending to-do list. And on Saturday mornings, I slept more deeply [after we got a television] than I had since before my son’s birth.” But Stephenson and Ruston both recognize the place technology has in our lives and want the same thing: to be in charge of the devices, rather than the other way around. Specific rules may vary from family to family. Ruston’s family has decided that the car is a no-phone zone, while Stephenson has instituted a list of age-appropriate tasks for her kids to do after school that earn them screen time, for instance. It’s all about what works for your family. (For additional ideas, check out Dani Bostick’s article, Don’t Let Your Child Become Addicted to Electronics.”)

And the rules you and your kids come up with, Ruston indicates, should ideally be binding for adults as well as the kids: it’s disingenuous to lecture kids about screen time if we’re on our phones every five minutes ourselves. “The discussion then becomes ‘We’re all in this together,’” she told Forbes. “That has really worked well in my family.”

Interested? Screenagers may be showing at a school, workplace, or community center near you.

Thumbnail credit: screen grab from Screenagers (official trailer)

Janice Deal is a writer, an editor, and a lover of found objects. Her short-story collection, The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, The Sound of Rabbits, was recently named a finalist in the Many Voices Project Prose competition. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and three disreputable cats.

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