When her 12-year-old daughter asked for a smart phone, physician and filmmaker Delaney Ruston realized that she was face to face with one of the biggest issues facing parents today: how to help our kids find a healthy balance with technology as they navigate the online world, particularly in light of what research tells us about how tech time impacts kids’ development.
Ruston chronicles her experience, as well as talks to researchers, educators, parents, and kids themselves in the new documentary Screenagers.
Here’s the trailer:
It’s gotten a great reception, including this post in the New York Times Well Family Blog. When I shared that article on the Between Us Parents Facebook page, it got a positive response and several of you said you wanted to know more, so I reached out to Delaney who was kind enough to talk with me.
Here’s my interview with Delaney Ruston, director of the documentary Screenagers.
Between Us Parents (BUP): You come to this project as not just a filmmaker, but as a doctor and a mom. I love the unique perspective that gives you. How have those different roles influenced you?
Delaney Ruston (DR): As a filmmaker, it’s about bringing something to the table that redefines how we think about things.
I interviewed three dozen psychologists, educators, researchers and really dove into the research and science. I then narrowed down those interviews to key thought leaders. And I really looked for things that resonated with me as a mom, and looked for what would help me to help my daughter.
BUP: Has the reaction to the film been surprising to you?
DR: I worked on it for 3 ½ yrs and every time I brought it up in conversation, everyone said “I have to see it.” I’m a parent struggling and I know how desperately we want to help kids find balance, so I was prepared in that regard.
As a filmmaker, it’s been great to see how the way we weaved together the stories has struck a chord. It’s really relatable. I stayed away from sensationalist, rare, catastrophic situations and focused more what we parents are likely to face day-to-day.
BUP: What is something you’ve heard from parents that concerns you the most?
DR: I kept hearing the myth that “kids need to figure it out for themselves” and that they need to learn to self regulate.
When I learned the data about how the reward centers of the brain are most active in young adolescent brains, I realized that it is just not going to work to tell kids that they need to self regulate and withhold that pleasurable stimuli.
It has given me the impetus to be out there promoting finding good ways to have boundaries and make it work.
BUP: What are some of the ways of setting those boundaries that you found to be most effective?’
DR: I hear lots of parents say they’re going to do a contract with their child, and that’s great, but how they do that is really important. Get input from kids as much as possible.
As parents, we need to come forward, set goals for when you want to put tech away as well as how you want to use technology. We have to make it about how we’re all in this together.
I learned when making the film how important it is to have short, calm talks with our kids about the way tech affects our lives, but it’s easy for us to forget those during our busy lives, so I came up with Tech Talk Tuesdays as a designated day to have those chats about technology.
I also love that people are bringing their kids with them to see film and using the power of hearing others talk about these issues.
People really related to the teen in the film who says that he and his friends put their phone in the middle of the table when they go out to eat and the first person to touch their phone has to buy.
BUP: What was one of your favorite stories in the film?
DR: One favorite is the family that has grandma as care provider. She goes to a counselor who helps her set limits and say no and tolerate doing so. We need more support for people and places they can go to get that help, especially for kids who don’t easily have opportunities to get offline. Important message that we talk more openly about.
We are getting on the same page to say we want our kids to have offline activities, and now we need to explore how are we going to make that happen.
BUP: What would you say to parents who have teens who are always using technology and who think that the pattern is already established and that it’s too late to change anything?
DR: It’s not too late. One example would be if a family decides to rethink violent video games that they have already bought and that are a part of their kids’ lives. They can do that. They can say, “We’ve rethought our values and what that represents. We want to replace them, and we’ll buy you some new games, ones that fit better with our values.”
It takes courage, but ultimately as a parent we have to ask ourselves “What is the down side if I don’t do something?” We don’t want to look back and see that we didn’t follow what felt true to our values and that we lost an opportunity to model them and instill them in our kids.
Another example is saying, “We’re going to change the rules and keep devices out of the bedroom at night.” The data shows that 75% of teens bringing phone into room at bed time and a quarter of them are being woken up by their phones. They can use an alarm clock instead in the morning. Families can do this because it’s in line with their belief that sleep is important.
BUP: You said you’ve worked on the film for several years. How has the conversation changed since then?
DR: I think the timeline of when kids get phones is accelerating. In the film we talk about having a phone before starting high school, but I recently heard parents talking about how all sixth graders have smart phones.
BUP: What hasn’t changed?
DR: That people are still very silent on the issue. I thought another film would come out on it, and nothing else came to the surface, but the biggest elephant in the room is often the one that’s ignored.
It truly is the biggest parenting issue of our time, and it’s not just parents and educators who are struggling. Teens are frustrated with their friends.
It is time to have an open discussion. We are so vulnerable to feeling critiqued but when it comes to technology we’re all trying to do something and feeling so conflicted about how we’re doing it. It’s time to bring this conversation out in the open.
We need more forums and debates and inclusive discussions.
I’m optimistic we’ll look back at the silence we have now on this issue and say, “What were we thinking?”
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