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A new documentary film called “Screenagers,” aimed at understanding the impact of our children’s increased connection to digital screens, will leave many adults re-evaluating their parenting tactics. While there is no turning back on the digital age, the filmmakers hope the project can serve as a jumping off point for a much-needed conversation.

“Screenagers” is a personal look at how families are coping with kids and screen time and how being connected to devices is effecting relationships and even child development. The film was directed by Delaney Ruston, a Seattle filmmaker and physician who uses her own experience with her children as the central storyline.

In the film, Ruston’s 12-year-old daughter, Tessa, is on the brink of getting her first smart phone. Ruston’s son Chase, 14, is hooked on video games.

Filmmaker Delaney Ruston. (Indieflix)
Filmmaker Delaney Ruston. (Indieflix)

“When I was growing up I didn’t have my own phone, I didn’t watch much TV and I only had one video game — Pong,” Ruston, 49, says in the movie. Today, she says, teens spend an average of 6 1/2 hours a day looking at screens, not including classroom or homework time.

As a doctor she decided she needed to understand the impact of all of this screen time on kids. And as a mom, Ruston needed to know what to do.

“Screenagers” juxtaposes Ruston’s story with the experiences of other families as well as the insights of psychologists, brain scientists and authors. Beyond just the amount of time spent staring at devices, the film looks at a number of hot-button areas where screens come into play nowadays: phones in schools; violence in video games; the impact of social media on self-esteem.

It’s all set against a very modern backdrop of boys and girls, often in the company of one another, with heads down, staring at phones and tablets and computers and televisions.

Cool factor

In 2015, 68 percent of kids starting high school owned a smart phone. When asked why she needed one, Ruston’s daughter says in the movie, “I would be cool. I would be able to look busy in awkward situations.”

Most of us can relate to what that means in 2016, how our own use of phones and other devices has become such a constant part of our existence. But the cool factor diminishes rapidly when those devices impact our ability to learn or interact with other people offline.

"Screenagers" tells the story of the habits of teens using mobile devices. (Indieflix)
“Screenagers” tells the story of the habits of teens using mobile devices. (Indieflix)

Throughout the film, children and their parents are shown dealing with often serious consequences related to excessive screen time, or screen time without boundaries.

  • A boy who lives with his grandmother becomes a “different child” when told he has to get off his video games. The grandmother seeks help for dealing with the confrontations.
  • Another boy is so consumed with playing video games into the wee hours during his freshman year of college that he stops going to classes and leaves school. He enters a rehabilitation facility to treat his addiction.
  • A girl with a love of photography spends most of her time in her room posing and taking pictures of herself to nurture a social identity aimed at getting “likes.”
  • Another girl shares a picture of herself in her bra with a boy she likes. When he shares the picture, the girl deals with the fallout at school.

And it’s not just the kids scrolling Instagram or blasting away on XBox that demand the attention of the filmmakers. Adults connected to work and their own social outlets on devices are called out by the very kids who they are attempting to digitally police.

“Can we really tell our kids, ‘Do as we say and not as we do’?” the film asks.

Start a conversation

But “Screenagers” doesn’t just present the problem without attempting to impart some solutions. There are inspiring kids and educators in the film who recognize when to say when. The distraction is real, but for parents who set guidelines or kids who exhibit self-control by ditching the phone for homework, there is hope.

Scilla Andreen is producer/executive producer on “Screenagers” and the CEO and founder of Seattled-based Indieflix, the company that is distributing the film. Indieflix was also behind the award-winning documentary “Finding Kind,” about the phenomenon of “mean girls.”

Andreen says the hope, through her company’s community viewing distribution model, is to get the new film in front of as many people as possible through screenings at schools, churches, libraries, workplaces or wherever. And what happens after people see it is what’s really important.

“Our goal is to start a conversation about fostering a healthy relationship with screens,” Andreen told GeekWire, acknowledging that it wasn’t exactly easy to raise money to make the film because people simply said, “Yeah, screens are with us.”

Teens spend an average of 6 1/2 hours a day on screens. (Indieflix)
Teens spend an average of 6 1/2 hours a day on screens. (Indieflix)

And while our digital lifestyle is certainly not going anywhere — we need and love our devices and connectivity — Andreen says it’s about healthy choices.

“We have to learn our relationship with food, alcohol, other people — same goes for screens,” she says. “Ultimately would I like people to look up a little bit more? Absolutely.”

Especially if they’re looking up to discuss the impact of screen time and seeking ways to manage it. Ruston’s Screenagersmovie.com is a great place to start with a number of resources that move the conversation forward. Most importantly, there is a link for how to screen the film for your community. Beyond that, there is research data, tools for parents such as contracts you can sign with your kids, and information on pro-social video games.

“Screenagers” has two upcoming showings at locations in the Seattle area. Tickets are available at parentmap.com.

  • Feb. 24, Kirkland Performance Center, 7 p.m.
  • March 1, Majestic Bay in Ballard, 7 p.m.

On Thursday, the film was featured in a segment on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Ruston discussed boundaries the family has agreed to related to screen time and her children were shown online and off, reading a book and playing an instrument.


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