Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age, Q&A With Director, Dr. Delaney Ruston

Teens are gaming, shopping, tweeting, scrolling, liking, and sharing their lives through the gauntlet of today's high tech society. But how is this affecting them and what are we to do? 'Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age' is a documentary that explores how much screen time is too much. Physician and mother of two, Dr. Delaney Ruston, became interested in this issue when her preteen started begging for a smart phone. Visit 'Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age' to locate a screening near you or host your own screening. I'm thrilled to share an exclusive interview with Dr. Delaney Ruston. 

How did you begin this journey?

As a mom of a teenage boy and pre-teen girl there was tension in my house involving technology. I was on edge feeling like I had to monitor them. This just made them sneaky and I felt completely out of control. I was seeking solutions but I wasn’t finding answers. Additionally, as a physician, I see kids come in glued to their devices and wondered about the impact of technology. This initiated my journey where I used my love of filmmaking as a social change tool. The power of emotions in good stories I find really gets people to thinking in new ways and gets them wanting to have great discussions. Exploring these solutions has been the most rewarding part, which is why this film resonates with people.

At the very beginning you say, "It started with one question, what new phone to get my daughter Tessa? I knew she wanted a smart phone." If you had a time machine and can travel back to that moment, knowing what you know now, what would you tell that mom who's unsure what to do?

It's all about trusting and verifying, that is part of a good relationship and parenting approach. Being able to turn things off is also really valuable. The science shows us how important it is to limited screen time and kids themselves tell us they want help setting those limits. Parents always ask me for specifics because we all need help. We have a lot of great information on our website. 

The other thing I would tell myself is to not hold back on conversations with other parents. Kids love those screens, and if they're together and one kid has a screen, there's a social pressure that's going to dominate their time together. Mandating some screen time limits and giving them insight into WHY you have restrictions allows for important discussions.

I'm very concerned about how technology has changed our human relationships. But the internet isn’t going anywhere. Is it possible for technology and other important things in life, such as being in nature and personal relationships, to coexist? 

Screen time etiquette is so important. When kids (or adults) are looking at a phone, it is an indirect statement that my screen is more important than our time together. Studies suggest that a big percentage of kids get frustrated with friends who are on their devices. My goal is to use data to discuss this major cultural dilemma. Simon Sinek, best selling author who studies human relationships, worries that if kids are constantly going to a screen to feel better when anxiety hits, and not doing what people have done historically—go to another person for comfort- then the quality of relationships and the ways kids grow up learning to make those connections, will be negatively affected. When we are feeling negative emotions and when we share those, that is what makes us vulnerable which is the essence of creating meaningful friendships. 

I watched the movie with my twelve year old daughter and she said the people in the classrooms who are most guilty of using devices are the adults. Then she told me that I'm on it a lot too. 

We hope people bring their kids to screenings. It's a great way to initiate that conversation. Ask the kids at the next screening if they think adults are on their devices too much. I bet most will raise their hand. Wouldn't it be great if they talked about it with you or their teacher to make that human connection. Adults think the kids are completely unaware. They're not. As adults, we're sending a subconscious message, and missing out on that one on one time to interact.

My daughter and her friends communicate online even when they're sitting together so I have my own strict offline rules, but they don't make it easy.

In the movie, there's a group of 7th graders who said they're happy to unplug because they do have rules otherwise they wouldn't get homework done or enjoy time with friends. I heard this all the time. Kids do want boundaries even if they're not conscious of it. Follow your gut, knowing it's the right thing. 

Soon we will be creating and posting a lot of videos and this topic and many others at to be conversation starters for parents and kids. 

What ended up on the cutting room floor that you wish you could have kept? 

Pornography is a click away and I had wonderful interviews around this topic. There was a story of a ten year old girl at a sleepover who was exposed to porn. She came home upset but what was interesting was she didn't say anything for a few days and then told her mom. The daughter described how icky she felt and even when she looked away she could hear it, and how inappropriate and upsetting it was. Boys end up viewing it at an even younger age and they feel shame. But that's a whole other film that needs to happen in a sensitive way.

The internet has become essential to our work, study, and life. How do you define being addicted to the internet compared to living a healthy life in a busy technical world? 

The simplest definition of a true clinical addiction is obsessing over something which has a significant negative impact. In the U.S., this is not classified as an addiction disorder but a process addiction which is behavioral, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. If you talk to an internet addiction specialist, they'll tell you that a kid who spends a lot of time on the internet or video games in high school but has a family structure around them that supports them is not picking up on the real negative consequences in life. So when they go to college and no one is there to instill parameters and encourage outdoor time, things fall apart due to the combination of loss of any boundaries from a new environment that inherently has stresses. This causes many kids to unfortunately fail at college.

Your movie touched on the physical effects on the human brain. As a doctor, can you tell me more details on the research being done and the science behind increased screen time?

In terms of the developing brain, the film shows how the brain scan of someone who games for four hours a day looks similar to a drug addicts so something is happening neurologically. Other research shown in the film demonstrates how young mice exposed to flashing screen time have less brain cells developing in the area that supports memory and learning. Even when they stop the video exposure and the young mice become adults, their cells are always less than controls. And what is shocking is when they do the same tests on adult mice, there is no impact on the number of cells in this critical part of the brain. There is something about the young brain that is particularly vulnerable to all the screen exposure. That means for kids, we still have to figure out how they are affected. We do know when kids watch fast paced screen activity that kids perform worse on cognitive tests then kids who color or draw. It’s not melting their brain but does confirm what our gut feels. 

Do you miss what the world was like before the internet and smart phones became so pervasive? 

The lack of nonverbal and emotional cues that are lost when kids are texting each other does makes me concerned. This is just one of many examples of where talking to kids about what they think is so key. How do they feel about communicating with friends? What feels most fulfilling? What type of things do peers do on text, Snapchat, etc. that bothers them? To make sure my family and I have these conversations, I started Tech Talk Tuesday's – having short conversations about tech’s impact on our lives. I find the key is starting out talking about the positive impact. So I would say here for example something like, “What was a text conversation that was particularly fun or meaningful?” 

What are kids losing with the Internet? 

I'm concerned that kids are so preoccupied by the technology, that they aren’t going to have the same level of creative capacity for thinking and reflecting on their own. Naturally, the brain prefers a dopamine rich activity, especially when thinking and creating something in your brain takes work, but in the end there's a degree of self worth and self confidence that kids miss. It's shocking to see kids walk everywhere reading their phone, there's all these missed moments where kids don't reflect. It's worrisome if we don't set limits.  Adults still have an impact on providing time where we can enforce reflection. 

Delaney Ruston

What message do you hope to impart to audiences after seeing this movie?

My goal is to empower parents, educators, and kids to recognize the benefits of finding balance and having concrete solutions. This is not a one time solution but a commitment to facilitating frequent, hopefully positive discussions, and the provision of the necessary tools to keep the conversation going. I'm inspired by film maker Judith Helfand who created the documentaries 'Healthy Baby Girl' and 'Blue Vinyl.' She elevated a topic into a much broader community discussion and that's what I have had the great fortune to do with my past films and with 'Screenagers.'

Don't miss 'Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age', playing throughout the nation or learn more on how to host a screening for your school, community or company.