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Takeaways From The Film: Screenagers

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Takeaways From The Film: Screenagers

The gym at Brentwood Academy in Nashville was filled with 700 parents, teachers, and a some students last Thursday night for an open-to-the-public viewing of the documentary, “Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age.”

Having followed Screenagers on social media, I knew they were getting a lot of favorable press, so I had high hopes for the film. Since my background includes video production, I am sometimes disappointed with the way documentaries screw up an important message by being dull or seeming too forced. Screenagers, however, was a home run for production value and strength of message.

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Delaney and her daughter in a mobile phone store (image source:

The film follows Delaney Ruston, a mom of two teenagers who is also a practicing medical doctor in Seattle, WA. One more thing… she’s the director of the film (busy lady!). She invites the viewer on her personal journey to navigate the delicate and often fragile balance between boundaries over screen usage and gradually granting freedoms to the digital natives we’re raising. As smart and engaged as Delaney is as a mom, her struggle to strike the right balance is definitely evident. She is still figuring this stuff out herself, which makes her relatable as a “character” in the film’s narrative.

One of the opening statistics in the film is that teenagers spend an average of 6.5 hours a day looking at screens, not including schoolwork. The remaining hour of footage seeks to answer the question, “What is this doing to our kids?”

The film features several personal family stories, from the teen whose grades plummeted because she was constantly on her school-issued Chromebook, to the girl who took a selfie in her bra and then texted it to someone who passed it around school. There were also several first-hand accounts from teens about their struggles to get off their devices. They used a word to describe how they felt: “addiction.”

One story that got to me personally was a young man who flunked out of college because of his video game addiction, which he sought treatment for at the reSTART Life program in Fall City, WA. Post-treatment, we see a clip of him playing the piano (beautifully!) and lamenting over the days, months, and years lost to video games that could have been invested into his musical gift instead. His story touched me because we live in a very musical community in Nashville, and we are musicians ourselves. It’s come up more than once in conversation with our friends who are accomplished musicians – where will music be in 15 years with so few young people investing in this important enrichment activity? Which sounds more fun to a 10-year-old boy, playing Xbox after school or going to trumpet lessons?

Screenagers is a film that makes you want to take action, starting in your own home. It actually made me wish I could fling all of our devices into the ocean and go Amish for awhile. But the level-headed part of me knows that’s not the answer. We are probably more gung-ho than some about addressing screen time in our home, but we still have much to work on. We’re ramping up to the teen years, so before the devices invade our home, we want to have a strong foundation in place.

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Image source:

Last night my husband and I took advantage of our two-hour window without kids to start drafting our family’s “screen time policy.” We have talked about contracts for when they have their own devices someday, and we definitely have existing rules about screen time on our one computer and the Wii console, but these guidelines haven’t been in writing. We talked about how much total screen time per week we feel comfortable with, and what are the pre-requisites to screen time in our home. The most common pre-requisite in our home currently is doing chores. (I’ve been saying to my kids for over a year, “Don’t come into the room asking to be blessed with a Mom, can I? – instead, come into the room seeking to bless others. Mom, do you need help with anything?”) However, we are adding to our pre-req list things like reading actual books, playing outside (or physical activity of some sort), and “great attitude” points. We’re seriously considering taking our tween boys back to the toddler years where we were putting marbles in a jar to earn rewards.

In order to create change in a positive direction when it comes to our digitally saturated kids, it’s going to require more from us as parents. We have to look at our own screen addictions, and our own laziness. I mean, we all know that it’s easier to let our kids veg out on video games and movies after a tiring day at work than it is to go outside and play with them. But nothing worth having comes easy! If we want kids who are well-adjusted, kind, compassionate, engaging, and successful in school, we can not park them in front of screens and hope for the best. (Book recommendation here: Never Say No by Mark and Jan Foreman.)

Toward the end of Screenagers, we see a group of teens talking about how happy they were that their parents have rules and boundaries about their screen time. One girl laughingly said, “I would probably by failing school if they didn’t!” Then her friend chimed in, “Until your phone died!”

I can’t help but recall the old public education campaign, “Parents. The anti-drug.” I think that still rings true.

Bottom line: Screenagers is a fantastic film, and you are crazy not to make every attempt to see it if it’s in your area. The producers have stated that the film will not be on Netflix, or Amazon, but only viewable at community screenings, so as to facilitate conversations among parents. Click here to see where the film is scheduled to be shown, or to inquire about bringing it to your school or community.

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