Screenagers, and Raising Kids in the Digital Age

Parents need to establish clear guidelines, so our children's relationship with their devices doesn't take over their lives, or sabotage their capacity for human interaction and empathy.
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15 year old girl's face lit up by an iPhone at a bus stop
15 year old girl's face lit up by an iPhone at a bus stop

In the thought-provoking new documentary, Screenagers, twelve-year-old Tessa is seen trying to convince her mother to let her get a smart phone after her flip phone stops working.

The scene that plays out in the kitchen is one that will be familiar to parents across the country. Tessa lobbies for the smart phone, and her mother, Dr. Delaney Ruston (producer/director of the film) invites her to explain why she should be able to have one.

Tessa: All my friends have it and I don't.

Delaney: Do you understand my position?

Tessa: You don't want me to be sucked in and obsessed with it at an early age. (Note: this line is delivered with the requisite teenage smirk, as if the possibility of Tessa getting pulled in to a digital device is just preposterous.)

Mom: How would you convince me to let you get a smart phone?

Tessa puts down her mom's smart phone, which she's been using to text her friends, and begins her reply:

All my friends have it. It makes me feel a lot more connected. And I'm not gonna be... (she pauses to look down at an alert that arrived on mom's phone, completely losing her train of thought.) Wait -- what was the question again?

To her credit, Tessa laughs, recognizing that she has just proven her mother's concern that when there is a smart phone in the vicinity, interaction with the person in front of you takes a back seat if a PING announces something new has happened.

In the film, Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, is seen talking about the pleasure-producing chemicals that are released in the brain when we seek out or find information. That smart phone we carry around essentially becomes a conduit for that chemical, because it constantly delivers something new.

Screenagers is an important film, and helping our kids learn to navigate the world of technology in ways that allow them to enjoy it without being consumed by it is an important topic. The average youngster spends more than six hours a day on screens, and that doesn't include time online at school or doing homework. The Pew Research Center reports that 75 percent of teens age 13 to 17 have smartphones -- and 24 percent say they use them phones "almost constantly."

As parents, we need to educate ourselves about how to integrate technology into our homes without allowing it to take over completely. To that end, I have put together a free Parenting in the Digital Age online series with a wide range of experts in this area that is open to any and all with speakers like Dr. Dan Siegel, Byron Katie, Rosalind Wiseman, Alanis Morissette and many others. (Click here to register.)

Screens are here to stay, and they deliver an endless array of goodies: connectivity with distant loved ones, the opportunity to learn virtually anything we please, a chance to stay current with our friends, and so much more.

But parents need to establish clear guidelines, so our children's relationship with their devices doesn't take over their lives, or sabotage their capacity for human interaction and empathy.

At one point in the film, Tessa and her mom are talking about the phone issue. Mom asks, "What would you do with it, if you had a smartphone now?"

"I'd would be cool, and I'd be able to look busy in awkward situations."

We need to help our children learn to navigate awkward situations without feeling they have to check out, or "look busy." Our kids need our guidance around using technology without using it to hide from life's difficult moments.

Parents, set boundaries. Have meaningful conversations with your kids about their digital lives. Educate yourselves about the impact of screen time on developing brains. Engage with your kids in play and creative activities that don't involve a plug or a battery.

To take part in the Parenting in the Digital Age teleseries, please click here. To book a screening of Screenagers at your PTA, business, or community group visit or email:

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the brand new Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.

To learn more about her online parenting courses, classes and personal coaching support, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter.

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