COLUMN: Dialing into Screenagers documentary

Taking one phone away from one student isn't going to solve anything

I’ve made a lot of parenting mistakes, but none have caused as much grief as decisions regarding cell phones.

Being too strict or too lenient both seem to have negative results, and honestly a happy medium has been hard to find. So, on Tuesday night I took the opportunity to watch Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age, to see if that could help me find some solid parenting ground. It was being shown at the Neighbourhood Learning Centre by the Chilliwack Child and Youth Committee, and I was among about 100 participants.

The film was not what I’d expected. Far from having a reactionary ‘close the blinds and hide the kids’ feel to it, it turned out to be a relatable hour of screen time.

I didn’t think I’d learn anything new, which in retrospect was a bit smug. Yes, a lot of the material dealt with in the film was very familiar territory, but it turns out there is still plenty for me to ponder on when it comes to screens and teens.

The first being that most video games are designed as handheld, infinite universes, so rewarding that the players won’t want to come out. And why would they? There is social awkwardness out in the real world, and that pretty girl you don’t want to talk to. There is anxiety, like dealing with a late homework assignment. And there also is isolating depression. So, teens who are already designed to be seeking out fast paced thrills and information, are falling deeper and deeper into their phones as a hideaway.

I knew this, I suppose, but I never thought of it in such clear and frightening terms.

At one point in the documentary, two brothers are playing side by side, staring unblinking at the screen. In another shot, a boy’s head seems to disappear into the violent scene playing out on the giant computer screen in front of him.

First person shooter video games have bled as much news ink as it has fake blood. But I learned why. Boys are playing them on average, 11.3 hours a week. These are games known to decrease empathy, and that were developed in part to desensitize soldiers prior to real war.

So there’s that.

But my kids aren’t heavy gamers, and when they do play it’s FIFA or NHL inspired. It’s those darn smart phones (that, yes, I bought them).

A new cell phone almost always seem to coincide with falling grades in our house, and taking them away for a week always seems to bring those grades up. But taking one phone away from one student isn’t solving anything.

Teen brains aren’t able to ignore distractions. Our brains are hardwired to pay attention to new information, for safety and evolutionary purposes. Now, studies show that any screen that gets in the way of learning brings down the performance of the student — even if the screen is in the hand of the person one desk over.

So if half the class is tuning out while the other half is trying to tune in to the teacher, everyone is affected. Not just my kid.

I also learned that the whole screen debate bumps right up to another hot parenting topic. Are we overscheduling our children? The makers of this Seattle-based film call that a right-out myth, considering that 40 per cent of U.S. school kids don’t have any after school programming at all.

That’s an awful lot of time to spend glued to a screen, especially when parents are often busy at work. And compound all of these issues with what may be the biggest influencer on teen habits of all. Parents.

Yep, here’s looking at us. Parents are in the perfect position to model and influence good behaviour. Something to think about next time your cell phone is charging.

As helpless as the situation may seem, the physician/filmmaker did find some older teens who had taught themselves responsible cell phone use. One loaded an app that blocks social media sites, that she can run while she’s supposed to be studying. Another wisely turns off her data so she’s not tempted to check sites during busy school times. Another even handed control of her social media passwords over to her best friend.

The film doesn’t offer a lot of strategies, but it does leave the viewers with an exit point to start discussing these important issues. And don’t think you’ll catch this film on Netflix anytime soon. It’s licensed only for group showings, where discussions are meant to follow.

You’ll have to put down your phone, pay attention to the movie, and then chat with the stranger next to you.

Chilling, isn’t it?

Jessica Peters is a reporter at the Chilliwack Progress.