Last night I attended a public screening of Screenagers, a documentary about how screens affect kids, at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes school.


Here are the points made by the documentary that I remember:

  • Humans are prone to noticing and reacting to pings from their environment QED: They are easily distractible
  • Teenagers are particularly susceptible to this and developmentally immature in being able to manage it
  • Multitasking is an illusion, and part of the illusion is one of heightened competence in the face of deteriorating performance
  • Juggling screens while doing other stuff exhausts your brain’s processing and may possibly stunt its capabilities and growth
  • Self-control is not a fixed trait and can be learned over time
  • First-person shooter video games may not directly cause violent behavior but do decrease empathy and increase aggression somewhat
  • Social media encourages constant peer pressure and competition around external qualities (especially, for girls, around physical attractiveness)
  • The constant availability of screens and social media makes it too easy to avoid uncomfortable or uncertain social situations and, therefore, stunts social and emotional development
  • We get constant dopamine hits when we receive new information, no matter the quality or type of novelty
  • Screen addiction can be as real and ruinous as other addictions; it’s important to intervene when time on the screen gets out of control

Suggestions made by the documentary:

  • Draw up a contract about screen usage, boundaries, and responsibilities (and include your child’s input)
  • Don’t be afraid to set limits, especially if you make clear the reasoning and logic behind them
  • Encourage and provide interests, commitments, and enrichments that provide sustained engagement away from screens
  • Kids often welcome getting support in helping them manage their technology use
  • Parents need to be as honest about how they also might need to curb their technology use
  • Have a regular family dialogue about issues around living in such a technological age (“Tech Talk Tuesday”)
  • Check out the web site for the movie, which has resources for parents, including an email list of suggested tech topics to discuss around the dinner table


I always find it important to remind myself that documentaries like Screenagers are more like essays than pure journalism. They have a specific point of view if not an outright thesis that they’re trying to persuade you of. Usually that persuasion is not done with rigorous logic and copious empirical evidence but anecdotes, associations, and curated talking points.

The basic framework of the documentary is that of an upper-middle-class mom seeking solutions on how to address her anxieties about kids and screen time. Those anxieties get aired and validated and then solutions get proposed. It would be a very different documentary if it was from the point-of-view of a parent who wanted to capitalize on the unique powers and possibilities technology/media now affords us to connect and empower her child. (Exhibit A: Life, Animated)

This is not to say this documentary can’t have its proper place in thinking through issues of screen time. I kept thinking throughout my viewing of it that I’d love to have it at my fingertips in short clips that can then be used to provoke discussion and dialogue.

In fact, I’m in general agreement with its explicit suggestions for parents, especially having regular conversations about technology management as a family. If parents are afraid of their kids disengaging because of screens, they need to step up their own engagement with their kids.

To lend substance to these discussions, I would recommend two recent books that are relevant: A Parent’s Guide to Video Games: The essential guide to understanding how video games impact your child’s physical, social, and psychological well-being by Rachel Kowert and Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter.

Rachel Kowert appeared recently on The Psychology of Games podcast to talk about her book, and Adam Alter likewise was interviewed on Fresh Air.

The Homeschool Sisters did a podcast with Mary Wilson on strategies to manage screen time. And Spawned (Cool Mom Picks) did a recent episode on tips to manage social media.

If you’re a Christian, you might want to also pick up 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You by Tony Reinke. Even if you’re not, you should enjoy the trailer for the book below.


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