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Digital age dilemmas: New film on pitfalls, practicalities for kids

Still image from Dr. Delaney Ruston’s film ‘Screenagers: Growing up in the Digital Age.’ Above: Young girls check out a cell phone during class.
Still image from Dr. Delaney Ruston’s film ‘Screenagers: Growing up in the Digital Age.’ Above: Young girls check out a cell phone during class.

It’s a dilemma that parents face at some point — generally when kids reach adolescence.

For Dr. Delaney Ruston, that point came when her 12-year-old daughter Tessa needed a new cell phone. Dr. Ruston wanted to replace her daughter’s basic flip phone with a similar model, but Tessa wanted a smart phone that would allow her to text with her friends, go online and use social media.

But Dr. Ruston was worried, not just about Tessa’s smart phone desire but also her younger son’s predilection for playing video games.

“We definitely had computers in the home and even with her device at the time, an iPod, I was aware of the growing tension in the home almost every day,” said Dr. Ruston said. “Were they on devices when said they weren’t? Should I be checking more? Why have I lost their attention?”

Tessa lobbied her mother hard and in the end got the phone she wanted. That event is the opening salvo of Dr. Ruston’s documentary “Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age.” The film has been shown at venues such as libraries and schools around the country since January 2016; this Friday, March 10, it will be screened by the Shelter Island PTSA at 7 p.m. in the Shelter Island School Auditorium.

As the phone became a bigger part of Tessa’s social life, Dr. Ruston started thinking about how much technology might be affecting other aspects of her kids lives — including their personal relationships — and soon she began noticing a similar pattern in her medical practice.

“As a physician seeing patients with children on devices, I started wondering about the impact and how it was affecting social and emotional development,” she said.

Dr. Ruston, a Stanford trained physician, is filmmaker-in-residence in the Division of Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook Medicine, which means she was in an excellent position to make a movie about the issue. Through her company, MyDoc Productions, Dr. Ruston had already made several health-related films including two that aired on PBS — “Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia” and “Hidden Pictures: A Personal Journey into Global Mental Health.”

Dr. Delaney Ruston
Dr. Delaney Ruston

As a physician, she was able to find answers to her questions from other medical professionals who specialize in adolescent development. As a mother of two, she also had ready access to two in-house subjects.

Dr. Ruston learned that kids spend an average of 6.5 hours per day looking at screens, outside of class work. That made her wonder: What is the impact of all these hours on developing brains?

Among the things Dr. Ruston learned is that young brains can oscillate very quickly, but when technology is involved, that can lead to the lack of focus and inability to listen.

“One of the things that I found particularly interesting is that there is no other time in our life that our reward center is most active, whether that’s food or drugs, or in this case, screen time, than in our teenage years,” Dr. Ruston explained. “Dopamine releases are bigger. I’m finding that information to be important.”

The film also explores different ways boys and girls tend to use technology. Girls on average spend an hour or so more on their phones per day than boys, while boys tend to spend more time playing video games than girls.

For girls, the phone is all about being social. Dr. Ruston explains that feelings are easily hurt when a girl sees that someone is having a party they are not invited to, or when comparing themselves to an attractive girl who gets more likes on Instagram. “It all takes a toll on the emotional psyche,” she said.030217_Screenagers_Movieshot3

One of the subjects highlighted in “Screenagers” is Hannah, an 8th grade girl who tells the story of taking a photo of herself in her bra and sending it to a boy she liked after he asked for it.

He quickly circulated the picture to others in the school and “for two months, she was isolated and depressed, and couldn’t tell her mom because she was worried her mom would take away her social media,” said Dr. Ruston, cautioning parents not to alienate their children.

“Research shows that kids respond better to positive rather than negative incentives,” she said. “When we negatively incentivize, the teen brain doesn’t see it as ‘I did something wrong,’ but as ‘I am bad’ and it can be hard for them,” she said. “Be positive, say that it’s so great you told me and that will get you the behaviors you want.”

Dr. Ruston notes that one of her primary motivations in making the film was to help parents and kids navigate the difficult technology terrain. Though parents will talk about being inundated with technology and their kids use of it, she found they were much more self-protective about sharing what they were doing to limit screen time and what was working.030217_Screenagers_Movieshot

“Parenting is one of the most personal things we do, which is a detriment to finding solutions,” Dr. Ruston said.

Which is why sharing stories is cathartic and is an important way to show parents they’re not the only ones dealing with these issues. That’s also why making a film that offered solutions was important to Dr. Ruston. “We need to set up an environment where kids feel they can talk to us,” she said. “The worst thing to say is, ‘I’m taking away all social media.’ That guarantees that they are not going to come to us as safe places to have mature conversations.

“My message is we don’t want to set kids up for failure,” she said. “Asking them to self control with devices when the alternative is doing homework or being left out socially is setting them up for failure.”

Dr. Ruston recommends scheduling breaks from screens to improve focus — for example, turning them off at 10 p.m. whether homework is done or not, or having a device that turns off the home router at a certain time. She also suggests allowing frequent, short breaks if kids are losing focus during homework.

Whatever the technique, it’s all about helping kids gain the skills needed to manage their own time and set their own limits as they grow into young adults.

Now that Tessa is 15, Dr. Ruston finds that she’s come up with her own ways to cope with social pressures related to her smart phone.

“She has techniques for putting it away,” Dr. Ruston said. “She was more sensitive to what people thought at 13. As she’s matured, that’s decreased. Now when something happens, she doesn’t respond right away.”

But there will always be new challenges, which is why on her website, screenagersmovie.com, Dr. Ruston provides several online resources and suggestions for parents. Here are just a few:

•    Pledge to have conversations with your kid about their technology habits. Each Tuesday Dr. Ruston’s website will email you “Tech Talk Tuesday” with conversation ideas, research updates and parenting insights.
•    Create a screen time contract with your child so they understand your rights as a parent and their rights to privacy, as well as what is expected of them in terms of the usage of phones and other technology.
•    While teens may say they need their phone in their room as an alarm clock, Dr. Ruston suggests turning back time by having an old fashioned alarm clock in their room. Turning over mobile devices each evening to parents really can help kids get a good night’s sleep.

In February 2015, the journal Pediatrics published a study of 2,048 4th and 7th graders that shows sleeping with a small screen decreased sleep time by 20 minutes, usually because of delayed bedtimes.

The association between small screens and reduced sleep increases with age. In its conclusion the study’s findings “caution against unrestricted screen access in children’s bedrooms.”