A new documentary, "Screenagers," makes a convincing argument that the hardest thing about modern parenting is finding a healthy balance of technology use.
I asked filmmaker and physician Dr. Delaney Ruston to explain this after I watched her film.
Today's parents worry about many of the same things our parents worried about -- drug and alcohol use, risky sexual behavior and mental health. The intensity of problems that can arise from these issues can be devastating, said Ruston. But so can the struggle over kids' tech use.
Ruston's concerns throughout the documentary about raising children in this digital age will feel relatable to parents of tweens and teens.
"I was afraid I was being too strict or not strict enough," she said in an interview, referring to the rules she was trying to enforce around tech use with her children, now 14 and 17 years old. "I didn't know so many other people were dealing with these rules issues."
Unlike other alarmist books and shows that have come out about kids and technology use, there are reassuring parts to this eye-opening documentary.
Ruston learned from brain researchers that the reward center of the brain is more active during the early teen years. That helps explain why it can be so hard for adolescents to tear themselves away from their devices. Those devices are extra stimulating and rewarding to their developing brains.
The human brain learns through consequences, she said. Children won't learn to regulate their behavior left to their own devices, so to speak. In fact, putting rules in place without enforcing consequences or having stronger boundaries is setting up some impulsive children for failure. But given the right guidance, kids can learn better self-control over time.
In the film, Ruston highlighted some of the dangers of too much screen time, as well.
An experiment on mice showed long-term effects on their brains after exposure to a period of intense media stimulation. We don't know if the same lingering damage happens to human brains, but the study should give parents pause.
She interviewed scientists and researchers who show how video game addiction is as powerful as substance abuse addiction. Others demonstrated that our brain is not designed to multitask. And ironically, the worse we do on tasks while doing multiple things at once, the better we think we are performing.
But not all the research was gloomy. Social scientist Sherry Turkle said there's research to suggest you can restore empathy in children with a five-day break from technology.
The documentary also reveals some hypocrisy at play: Parents want to impose limits and boundaries on tech use, but they bristle at the notion of applying some limits on themselves. We tend to minimize our own usage and its impact on others, such as spouses and children.
The three-and-a-half year process of making the film changed Ruston's approach to how she manages technology with her own family.
"I started out overly controlling," she said. Her energy around her kids' screen time had a distinctly negative vibe to it. That automatically makes kids defensive about it. She has since made an effort to start by focusing on the positives, as well.
Other changes Ruston has implemented: She made the morning school commute tech-free. She installed an app on her phone that auto-replies when she's driving, so she's not tempted to text and drive. She's worked on reducing the time she spends on her computer at night. She and her husband created more outdoor activities to keep their children and their friends busy. Her family has started a weekly "tech talk Tuesday" where they discuss the ways technology is affecting them, and she starts the discussion in a positive tone. She added an app on her daughter's phone called OurPact that enables her to turn off all the apps on her daughter's phone remotely, if needed.
So, how can more people watch the "Screenagers" documentary? It's not available online, because Ruston was convinced that it needed to be part of a public discussion. Small groups, like civic or religious organizations or schools, can rent the film. She suggests that interested parents ask a school's PTA to screen it. There have been nearly 600 screenings in the four months since it was released.
It's a worthwhile way to spend some quality screen time with your children.