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21 October 2016

Documentary "Screenagers" Explores a Perplexing Question: What Are Smartphones Doing to Our Children?

Documentary explores a perplexing question: What are smartphones doing to our children?
by Wallace Baine, Sentinel Entertainment Editor, 12 October 2016

(Photo:) Almost seven out of ten American teenagers beginning high school own cell phones, as families struggle to figure out how to help kids develop habits of self-control against the seductions of the screen. Contributed photo.

For many people in contemporary America, it’s an annoyance. But for parents of teenagers, schoolteachers and anyone else who regularly interacts with kids, the annoyance is beginning to look a lot like a crisis.

We’re talking about the screen, explicitly as it applies to video games and smartphones. A new documentary called “Screenagers” has been making the rounds in communities across the country and around the world in an effort to reckon with what to do with an entire generation of young people who are essentially laboratory animals for a social experiment that nobody planned but everyone participates in.

On Saturday, “Screenagers” will be presented at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz for anyone looking for answers to how to help teens deal with the seductive – in many cases, literally, irresistible – allure of the cell phone.

A generation or two ago, adults were sounding similar alarms about television – aka the “idiot box” or “boob tube” – and its tendency to suck up all their kids’ time and attention. Today’s screen crisis is of a different dimension, said “Screenager” producer Lisa Tabb.

“It is different,” she said. “We didn’t walk around with TVs in our pocket. We didn’t bring it to school. We didn’t have access to it 24/7. We didn’t have access to multiple screens at once.”

“Screenagers” is a thoughtful, probing movie with a practical kitchen-table kind of appeal. It’s the first-person story of Seattle physician Delaney Ruston and her decision to address screen-time use with her son and daughter.

Tabb, a former Santa Cruzan, is facing that same dilemma. “Delaney and I have been talking about this movie for a long time,” she said. “She called me up and asked if I wanted to do a movie with her called ‘Screenagers.’ I thought, well, that’s a good name. But my son was a middle-schooler and my daughter was 9, so I wasn’t quite there yet. Fast forward to about a year and a half later, I call her up and say, ‘Yes, I’m so in on this.’”

Tabb had come out of the world of television news and she had done her share of segments on teens and tech as a news producer. Suddenly, she was facing it as a parent. “I’m still in it,” she said. “We have our own battles in our household. Just last night, my husband said that maybe we ought to have a contract with our kids. We haven’t felt like we need one before. But now we do.”

A contract for cell-phone use between parent and child is also at the center of “Screenagers,” as parents try to find an acceptable middle ground between complete prohibition and complete capitulation. Almost seven out of 10 kids starting high schools have smartphones. The film bolsters its case that excessive screen time is damaging young minds with scientific backing, including talking-head interviews with psychologists and neurologists to indicate that excessive cell-phone or videogame use can stunt psycho-social development in kids, and inhibit that crucial skill for adulthood, self-control.

The film probes the stark gender divide in screen abuse – boys are subject to the addictive experiences of immersive video gaming, while girls are often victimized by the amplifying effect of negative social interactions on social media. And it’s not shy in pointing out that the parents who are struggling to impose some kind of order on their kids’ use have issues of their own when it comes to screens.

“So many people are looking for answers,” said Tabb, who added that the film has been strategically distributed outside conventional channels in order to get the issue front and center in local communities.

“We could easily hand it over to Netflix, and they would love it. But we want it to be shown only in communities right now because we believe real change is only going to happen when people are talking to each other and figuring it out together.”

When: Saturday, Oct. 15, 7 p.m.
Where: The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz

Details: www.pulseproductions.net

About the author:
I cover the arts scene in Santa Cruz County for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Reach the author at wbaine@santacruzsentinel.com or follow Wallace on Twitter: @wallacebaine.

Full bio and more articles by Wallace Baine


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