Have you heard about the newly-released documentary, Screenagers? Written, directed and starred in by Delaney Ruston, a Seattle primary care physician, it's about kids and screen time in our tech-oriented world today. The idea of the film came to her as she and her preteen daughter, Tessa, argued over whether to replace Tessa's flip phone with another data-less one or the smart phone for which Tessa was pining.
Screenagers was shown in DC last night (and followed by a discussion and Q&A with Ruston and Tessa), and I took the boys, hoping to impress upon them some of the reasons I refuse to buy them the smart gadgets they want as well as the myriad concerns I have about screen time and why I limit theirs.
Ruston does a great job of presenting the positive aspects of technology and online involvement (there definitely are a number of these!), the statistics and findings regarding the less positive impacts of screen time on developing brains and interpersonal behavior and relationships, and the dilemma parents find themselves in today when attempting to let their children grow up safely in an online era. The film is not heavy-handed at all and Jack (almost 10), Oliver (7), and I all came away with important take-aways.
J: "I see now why you don't want me to have a smartphone yet, and I definitely plan to stop watching certain shows. Even though I enjoy them, they are not educational and don't help my brain."
O: "I learned that screen time is not very good for my brain!"
Some of the most powerful images were of teens and adults in public and social situations: heads down, screens aglow, ear buds often in. Not talking, not looking around, tuning out everything but the often, frankly, unimportant game, headline or new photos dancing across the devices gripped tightly in hand. We model this behavior for our kids all too often.
These gadgets enable greater connectivity with others BUT do so at the cost of connecting you with those in your immediate surround. They make boredom obsolete, they make avoiding strangers and wait times easy. Gratification is immediate. But what is the cost?
I'd have argued before and I continue to argue now that the costs are pretty great. When we can withdraw from the world, forget how to entertain ourselves, lose the ability to easily make eye contact and conversation with friends and strangers, and become more used to immediate everything and disjointed encounters with others, our connection to both self and our communities frays.
One study that Ruston highlighted in Screenagers was one done with mice. When mice were exposed to screens, they took longer to get through mazes and their brains had fewer nerve cells than their non-screened counterparts. When their exposure to screens was halted, the nerve cells didn't regenerate; the brain changes were permanent.
The study's author pointed out that while we don't know for sure that human subjects would show the same results, if they do mirror the differentials between screened and non-screened mice, we are raising a generation of children that we've disadvantaged in a pretty serious way.
Teenage brains have heightened dopamine receptors which means that everything that feels good feels even better to teens. The rush they experience when someone "likes" their Facebook post or they win a round of Angry Birds is even greater than it is for kids and adults. As such, they find the constant influx of information and input from smart devices particularly "addictive." Addictive was a word the adolescents featured in the film used over and over again, and, as the studies and experts called on in Screenagers show, it's actually a pretty accurate descriptor of what's happening to them when they're allowed unlimited access to their phones and gadgets.
The worst cases of tech addiction require rehab and detox. Kids with less serious addictions still react with moody and/or angry behavior when deprived of technological "fixes." Some studies show that video games, especially violent ones, inhibit empathy in those who play regularly and much. Several teens admitted to using their phones to get out of or completely avoid uncomfortable social encounters.
Is this what we want for our children? For ourselves?
The film underscores, repeatedly, the importance of making technological use and limits a family conversation. Tell kids all the whys behind parental concerns and limits but also acknowledge the environment in which they're growing up. Help them be responsible, aware digital citizens.
Seeing Screenagers with the boys really made our subsequent discussion about technology easier and richer than previous ones have been. I highly recommend using the film for just that end. Hope you can see it!
Be aware, there are some scenes that show violent video games. I was taken aback by one clip from Grand Theft Auto and am sorry my boys saw that bit. I don't like to shelter them too much, but those games are awful.
For additional information, including the Screenagers trailer, information about hosting a screening, the Screenagers blog, and examples of technology contracts families can create together, visit the documentary's website.