‘SCREENAGERS’ – A Thought Provoking Take On Tweens, Teens & Their Screens


Battles over screen time? Tears over phones? Rage when devices are switched off?  And that’s just your three year old.

Can you even imagine the situation with a teenager? Maybe you have teens of your own. I know mine are six and three, but I hold no illusions that navigating screen time will get any easier as they grow older.

That’s why when our first grader’s school sponsored a public free for all screening of the movie documentary titled  ‘Screenagers: Growing Up In The Digital Age’ I knew I had to make it. On an awful rainy night the auditorium was packed with parents, caregivers and teachers and for 68 minutes we entered into the world of ‘Screenagers’. What a brilliant title, I’ll definitely give it that, I thought as the movie started.

Delany Ruston is a mother of two teenagers  and a primary care physician living in Seattle USA, who somehow made time to direct this, more than just a great title of a film. She herself is one of the ‘main characters’. In her we see the parent in us who is having to figure out the very real dilemma of whether or not to let her 12 year old daughter have a phone. Of course by ‘phone’ we all know what that means. This mother is having to consider letting her daughter have an online presence. Ruston invites us to follow through with her on this journey of  how she, along with her husband,  eventually decide to handle the challenge of rules and boundary setting while also learning to communicate in the digital language of their daughter and her peers.

How would you convince me? she asks her daughter in one of the earliest shots of the movie

‘All my friends have it?’ comes the reply, in that typically American way of tilting up the end of a sentence making it sound like a question.

The movie tries to address the extent of how ‘screen time’ can affect different families. From the despondent grandmother acting as a guardian who needs professional counselling and advice on how to create boundaries for her grandson, to a well adjusted, intelligent young man who dropped out of a good college due to the very real problem of video game addiction.

Video games are given a fair bit of airtime in the film, One expert ‘voice’ tells us that violent video games were initially developed to desensitise soldiers in the army to real war. However interestingly enough whether they are responsible for encouraging acts of violence is something that not many experts are willing to make a solid statement on.

Our son’s school had a post-screening discussion facilitated by Dr Barry Schneider, Professor of Psychology at Boston College, who led a brief question and answer session. On that  unanswered question from the film  “Do video games promote violence” he was confidently able to state:  ‘Yes they do’ and as follow on from that he posed another question most experts are reluctant to comment on “Does that mean violent video games cause aggression?” His short answer: ‘Probably’. 

One fascinating fact that is highlighted is this evidence based research done on the difference between what teen Girls and Boys like to do with their ‘screen time’. Apparently ‘Girls like to relate’ (they spend more time on social media). At one point Ruston’s daughter clearly explains to her parents that she can not get dressed in the morning without the aid of her phone. And Boys it seems, ‘like to shoot guns, crash cars and blow things up’ (they spend more time on video games).

Another story we get insight into is that of a high school girl persuaded by a classmate to text him a selfie in her bra. The same boy proceeded to share the text with others until it eventually spread through the entire student body. Unfortunately,  this is an increasingly common  scenario and one we often think ‘won’t happen to me or my daughter’ but if you haven’t made any precautions against it happening, how can you be so sure?

This example made me particularly think – as one of the experts in the film also states that asserting authority without justifying is never the way to go. “When your daughter is not with you do you want her to just do what someone asks her to (without question)?

Then don’t expect her to be the same with you.

Our children will and should be questioning us. They will ask why and why not. Commit to TALKING about technology with your children – both sons and daughters,  as the dangers are very real for both of them. In between these stories of families we get to hear from educators and students themselves.

One group candidly talk about the rules their parents have on screen time. Most of them describe themselves as being ‘addicted’ to their devices and all agree overwhelmingly on the fact that they are glad they have boundaries otherwise they would, they say, get nothing else done at all. This confirmed something I had been pondering for a while. I remember as a teenager myself, being in a situation where I wanted my parents to take charge. I had been invited to a sleepover by a friend and I was secretly relieved when my parents categorically said ‘No’. Even when it doesn’t seem like it, your teenager needs boundaries and rules from you, rest assured you are definitely doing the right thing by asserting them.

And wait, before we all start feeling like it’s a generational gap thing between us and our children, the documentary really brings it back to you and I – the parents who are using our devices in front of our children everyday. Many of our kids have grown up seeing us with our face in front of a screen.  I joked about it once with my girlfriends that the renaissance paintings of the past had mothers gazing adoringly at their babes on the breast and the ‘modern’ version of that is mothers gazing at their smart phones while the babe is on the breast.

Why is it SO HARD to put down that device, and how can we expect our children to do so, while modelling the opposite behaviour? Just today my three year old put her ‘baby’ to bed, covered the doll with a blanket and lay down next to her only to proceed to ‘pretend’ to use her ‘phone’. To my horror I realised she was doing what she sees me do. It made me feel terrible. And it’s hard for me to actually write this and admit to you that yes, sometimes (okay – often) after bedtime cuddles, prayers and stories I lay next to my child and work from my phone. Whether it be catching up on reading or working on the blog, what my three year old sees before falling asleep is her mother engrossed in a screen.

One of the other soundbites from the movie I felt important to note was that ‘self control’ is a better indicator of success in several studies than intelligence. Remember that famous marshmallow test? Well it turns out that given the right guidance Kids CAN LEARN self control. The key is to set CLEAR guidelines. The takeaway message is that clear CONSISTENT  rules and boundaries given with LOVE and CARE promotes better everything. And that adults trying to set limits for their kids, without setting any for  themselves are setting both parties up for digital failure.

In the end all media is ‘educational’. It depends what it is you want your child to learn.

I was surprised to find that the issue of pornography exposure was not addressed at all. However this is a huge topic in itself and by the end of the film there was a lot to think about even without this. My husband and I often talk about technology and how we could/should control it in our household. After this movie, I realised we need to start involving our children in these conversations too. No they are not too young. A six year old can be involved in talking about healthy technology consumption instead of brushing it off for later when he is older. Recently to try to give him some perspective on why we have not allowed him to have a Playstation yet,  I tried this analogy: ‘some games and apps are like junk food for your brain, fun in small doses but not so healthy and too much can make you sick.

Before you go off to find this documentary on your favourite online streaming service, it is actually not available on any. The producer’s aim is to facilitate conversations between the viewers, many of whom will be parents and guardians, therefore it is only viewable at community screenings in public spaces. Watch the trailer here. You can inquire about bringing Screenagers  to your school, Mosque or community here.

Also while we are on the topic this brilliant step by step on how to help your child confront the p-word online.

And another great resource to keep you ‘woke’ when it comes to your kids and being online – Parents who fight blog 


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1 Comment

  • Reply Artina December 1, 2016 at 3:36 am

    Great post Sumaya! It definitely puts the toddler/preschooler challenges into perspective when you start thinking about screenager issues.. may Allah make it easy for us and our children!

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