Screen Time

New Documentary Explores Impact of Mobile Devices on Teens' Lives


A new documentary explores the impacts smartphones and other mobile devices are having on teenagers and their social, emotional and psychological lives.

Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age” examines the impact of screen technology on kids and offers parents practical solutions that can work. The movie, directed by California-raised, New York-based physician Dr. Delaney Ruston, has played at several film festivals and is screening at schools, churches and community centers across the country.

According to recent studies, the average kid in the United States spends 6.5 hours per day looking at screens, and that doesn’t include classroom or homework screen time. Boys spend on average the equivalent of 1.5 days on video games every week, and some recent studies show that screen time increases dopamine production and causes behavior that mimics addiction.

At the same time, ownership of smartphones has tripled in recent years among young people. In 2011, 22 percent of students starting high school had a smartphone; by 2015, that number surged to 68 percent, according to a report on media consumption by the nonprofit Common Sense Media.

Dr. Ruston decided to make “Screenagers” when she was faced with the quandary of whether to purchase a smartphone for her then-12-year-old daughter, Tessa.

“I was very nervous about the sheer amount of struggles that we were going to potentially have if she had access to a phone,” Ruston said in an interview. “We were already having struggles with technology in the home, let alone the portable online device. That’s really what motivated me to do this film is thinking about families now that are struggling.”

Ruston turned the camera on her own family and explored other family situations as well, revealing stories that depict messy struggles over social media, video games, academics and internet addiction.

Interwoven with these stories are recent scientific findings by brain scientists who present evidence of real changes happening in the brain. The documentary also offers insights from thought leaders such as Peggy Orenstein, Sherry Turkle, Simon Sinek and others.

“Screenagers” also offers approaches on how parents and educators can work with kids to help them achieve a healthy amount of screen time. For instance, parents should draft a contract with input from their children on rules regarding screen time.

“Ultimately, I learned all sorts of different solutions,” Ruston said. “My main goal in making the film is helping parents to find balance.”

So far, reaction to the film has been positive. Melinda Gates, former project manager at Microsoft and co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, wrote on her Facebook page:

“As the mother of three kids — two of them teenagers — I’ve noticed that whenever I get together with other parents, the conversation ends up turning to our kids’ screen time. We’re all worried about how much is too much. For any of you wrestling with this issue, I loved the documentary, ‘Screenagers.’ It combines smart insights and practical tips for raising happy, healthy, technologically-empowered teens.”

The “Screenagers” website provides a list of upcoming screenings around the country. And as part of a community viewing model, parents, educators, PTAs and workplace groups can book and host a screening of the film at Parents are encouraged to bring their kids to the movie.

For more information about “Screenagers,” visit the film’s website.

About the Author

Richard Chang is associate editor of THE Journal. He can be reached at [email protected].