Nearly one in four American teens report an almost constant use of tech devices, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, a dynamic that has caused many parents to worry about everything from cyberbullying to appropriate media choices. But, according to physician and filmmaker Delaney Ruston, one issue cuts across nearly all American households: screen addiction, which is a parenting problem that's taking over the millennial generation. In Screenagers, a new documentary on mental health in teens and tweens, Delaney tackled what she called “one of the most difficult parenting issues we’ve ever faced” by examining families’ struggles over setting boundaries for social media, video games, academics and internet addiction.
The convenience and constant access provided by mobile devices means that today’s teens spend more time connected to technology than ever before, according to Pew, and the result is that kids can spend more time in front of a screen than in a classroom. According to the nonprofit research group Common Sense Media, American teens use media an average of nine hours a day — including everything from watching tv to reading and listening to music — and an average of seven hours a day consuming media using some kind of “screen” or tech device.
When Ruston saw the beginnings of tech addiction taking over her own children’s lives, with her two teens spending almost every minute texting, gaming, and posting, she decided to explore how parents negotiate screen time, according to the Los Angeles Times. Having completed prior filmmaking projects on schizophrenia and adult mental health, Delaney took a slightly different approach to the issue, delving into examples in her family and others as an addiction rather than a habit. “There's a risk of real addiction to these devices, resulting in serious negative consequences at any age,” Delaney told the Times. She added that the problem isn’t only seen in kids. “From 8 to 14 percent of the adult population has clinical Internet addiction,” Delaney added.
And as with other addictions, researchers believe the chemical dopamine is behind teen screen addiction, according to the movie’s website. Thanks to that feel-good hormone, every buzz from an incoming text, ping from a Facebook “like,” or level we demolish in Candy Crush sends a feel-good message to our brains — and kids are far more sensitive to dopamine’s effects, according to the movie trailer.
With so many factors stacked against them, what can parents do to help teens curb screen addiction? In her Times interview, Ruston offered three bits of advice for parents:
1. Figure Out If There’s Actually A Problem To Be Solved
Not all kids use technology the same way, or for the same reasons. Plenty of kids use their phones to stay connected to friends via text or IM. But others might be using their phones as a way to hide or “look busy” when things get awkward in real life.
2. Quantify The Issue Using Your Own Technology
Ironically, there are apps to help parents track how much time their children spend online. The Screenagers website includes a list of parental control apps and websites that Ruston and her team recommend.
3. Make Unplugging A Positive, Rather Than A Punishment
According to Pew, the majority of parents punish teens by taking away digital devices. Ruston suggested in her Times interview that giving kids an incentive for limiting screen time — such as an allowance bonus, or pizza night — might be more effective. She also advocated for setting “tech free” times where everyone, parents included, put their devices away and focused on interaction.
Of course, not all tech time is created equal — and teens don’t want to spend every waking moment with their parents and siblings. Overall, parents have to teach kids how to engage with others, both online and in real life. That can be a difficult job. But the major takeaway from Ruston’s new film seems to be for parents to take it one step at a time, and set clear boundaries based on what their child needs and what their family is able to manage.