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Film 'Screenagers' Aims to Discuss Solutions to Digital Device Addiction

In her new documentary Screenagers, Delaney Ruston — a filmmaker, physician and mother — attempts to explain the medical effects of and the science behind increased screen time, and to open a dialogue to find a solution to the problem.

February 25, 2016

As technology has evolved, so has the way we communicate. More and more, consumers of the digital world find themselves glued to their screens, and adolescents are no exception. In her new documentary Screenagers, Delaney Ruston — a filmmaker, physician and mother — attempts to explain the medical effects of and the science behind increased screen time, and to open a dialogue to find a solution to the problem. From a middle school girl pleading for her first smartphone, to a young man failing college because of his video game addiction, Screenagers exposes the various struggles parents and children are having in this digitally enhanced era. 

Filmmaker Delaney Ruston.This is not producer Delaney Ruston's first look into the mental landscape of 21st century citizens, which she has explored in two previous films. A primary care physician and mother of two, she is keenly aware of the mental health issues that affect not just her family, but millions of people. "As I was doing my mental health advocacy work, I was thinking about mental health within my own family and some of the struggles we were having around technology," she says. This rumination led to the development of Screenagers.

The film, which is a little over an hour in length, watches Ruston navigate the minefield of her teenage children's digital lifestyles. Her son loves to play video games, and her middle school-age daughter wants a smartphone to communicate with her friends. When asked why she should have a smartphone, Ruston's daughter provides a myriad of reasons related to social interaction, including "I will look busy in awkward situations." 

"I was really worried about the impact it would have on her, and so I started to look at the science, instead, as a physician," says Ruston. "Indeed, there is data on how screen time for kids and teenagers is impacting their social development." 

According to statistics shared in the film, when adolescents are stuck behind cell phones, tablets and computers — a whopping 6.5 hours per day on average — they fail to develop communication skills, self -esteem and lose the ability to empathize. 

A large part of Screenagers focuses on the science of dopamine release. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with the reward centers of the brain. "Using screens, switching between screens, causes dopamine to be released," says Ruston. "But what I didn't know is that there's no time in life that our brains are most activated by dopamine than in the teenage years. Good things feel even better." 

So when kids get that rush of good feelings from using a computer or staring at a phone, they are less willing to put those things down, and can develop what becomes the equivalent of a clinical addiction. 

"The young adolescent brain can oscillate back and forth very, very quickly, but it comes at a cost," says Dimitri Christakis, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington who is featured in the film. 

But how much of this correlates to teenagers' willpower, and how much is a parenting issue? 

A patient's young daughter uses a tablet in 'Screenagers'.

Screenagers follows not just Ruston, but several families from different socioeconomic backgrounds. What unifies them is the struggle the parents face when setting — and trying to enforce — rules for digital device use. Regardless of whether the household is low or high-income, many of the parents seem like they can't say "no" to their kids. 

"I was impressed how similar all the stories were in that all parents want their kids to be off screens more, and to be following extracurricular activities, and succeeding at school and having good relationships," says Ruston. "So why are we so seemingly permissive? I think a lot of it has to do with how hard it is to parent, so that many people have thrown up their hands and not had an open discussion of the importance of finding solutions that work." 

To find those solutions, Ruston says parents and educators must start involving teens in the discussion. At Roosevelt High School in Seattle, which gets some screen time of its own in Screenagers, teachers are able to decide how to monitor cell phone use in their classrooms. One of those teachers does, indeed, talk with his students about digital device use, and incorporates their input. This way, the teens feel like they have a say and are a part of the decision-making. 

"I think there are three key things families can do," Ruston says. "One is to have weekly talks with kids, hearing kids' inputs and focusing on what's good about technology, as well as identify areas where they want to improve technology use in the family's life. Two is creating a contract, a family agreement, about when to have tech on and off, which is important in helping kids develop self-control. Three is to continually go back and adjust these goals with kids' input."

The struggle to catch up with technology in children's lives is only going to get worse. Of the future, Ruston says communication is key. "I am compelled to action, because we are, as parents, the last generation to know life before we were connected 24–7. So if we don't stand up together and say, 'Let's define digital citizenship. Let's talk about the importance of balance,' then we're really losing an opportunity, because that could easily get discarded by people who've grown up with it being the norm." 

Screenagers attempts to fit many issues into one overarching question: How do we fit screen time into our daily lives, without letting it take over? It leaves you wanting more from each storyline explored, and frustrated with the lack of communication happening between the families featured, but in the end that is its purpose. Once the dialogue is open, it can continue past the 67-minute runtime of the film. Hundreds of parents and educators, hungry for information and solutions, have already requested that Screenagers be screened in their communities. "I'm just thrilled that it's a part of the solution," Ruston says. 

For more information about the film and to find a screening near you, visit the Screenagers website.

Morgan McMurray

Morgan McMurray is a writer and editor based in Seattle. A 2013 graduate of Iowa State University, she has a Bachelor of Arts in English, Journalism, and International Studies.

Read more of her work on her personal blog and at Law Street Media.

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