Sexting, online bullying, video game addiction, obsessive checking for messages, disruptions to lessons and sleep, anti-social behaviour.
Three years ago, American doctor and filmmaker Delaney Ruston started grappling with how much time her children spent on screens and all the issues that threw up.
Her daughter Tessa wanted her first smartphone at age 12. Son Chase was heavily into playing video games at 14.
“I was really struggling with my daughter who wanted more social media and my son who wanted more video games,” Ruston said. “I was completely at a loss at what to do and frustrated with all the tension in the house.”
When Ruston began investigating, she discovered the medical consequences of constant immersion in screen technology, which one study showed was 6.5 hours a day for an average teenager.
“Excessive screen time can lead to problems such as decreased attention span, problems with developing social skills and a risk of real clinical internet addiction,” Ruston said. “These can affect kids currently in their studies but also in the future with their careers.”
Ruston, who has made the documentary Screenagers about her own family’s struggles with technology, believes we have accepted screens into our lives without enough questioning of the negative effects.
“When I was making the film, people would say to me ‘the cat’s already out of the bag. Screens are everywhere. We should just accept that our kids are going to be glued to devices’,” she said.
“I just didn’t buy that. We’re still their parents and frankly if you talk to kids, they want our help in setting boundaries.”
The documentary shows that companies that want us to spend more time on our screens, including Facebook and Google, often stop their own staff using phones and laptops during meetings so they are not distracted.
“All of us think we can multi-task but the data consistently shows that our performance is degraded on both things that we’re doing,” Ruston said. “There’s also human decency – a society that allows us to disconnect when we’re in the same space as others is frightening.”
In the film, Ruston and her husband realise how much they are distracted by their own phones, tablets and computers, even while criticising their children for being too focused on their devices.
“Now I work to have two nights after dinner when I’m not on my devices for at least two hours and my kids help me with that,” she said.
While Ruston agreed there were benefits for teenagers from smartphones and video games, particularly access to information and connecting with friends, she is opposed to phones in bedrooms when it’s time to sleep.
“A major study showed that just having devices in the bedroom can affect critical sleep cycles,” she said. “You can imagine that if kids have their smartphone, they might start to wake up and quickly want to check it, as opposed to finishing that sleep cycle.
“We see that even when kids have to get up super early for school, they will get up earlier to be able to check their device.”
Tessa, now 15, said making the film opened her eyes to the problems that she and her friends faced because of their phones.
One of the big changes has been stashing her phone in another room while doing her homework.
“I couldn’t really sit through all my homework before without my phone,” she said. “Now I take breaks on my phone and that’s a better balance.”
The documentary showed one student who became so obsessed with video games that he had go to an internet addiction rehab centre.
“Even as a physician, I didn’t know about true clinical internet addiction before making the film,” Ruston said. “Studies show anywhere from 5 to 15 per cent of young adults have serious problems with their internet use.”
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THE DOCTOR’S PRESCRIPTION FOR LIMITING SCREEN TIMEDr Ruston suggests putting phones and other devices away at meal times, in the car and during family outings.While studying, teenagers should put their phones in another room but can take “tech breaks”.No phones, tablets or other devices in the bedroom when it’s time to sleep.Rather than relying on your phone, buy an alarm clock and a calculator. Limit interactive video games to certain times – the weekend, for example – especially for younger children.Try what a group of teenagers do in the film: when they eat out, they put their phones in the middle of the table. First to check their phone pays for dinner.Set aside regular time to calmly discuss any issues about mobile phones and other devices rather than letting them spark arguments.Parents worried about their children’s screen usage should think about what they are doing themselves.