‘Screenagers’ Documentary Examines Impact of Screens and New Tech on Kids’ Development

PHOTO: A teenage girl texts on mobile phone in a bedroom in this undated file photo. PlayGetty Images
WATCH Documentary Takes New Look at Impact of Technology on Kids

Navigating a child's access to screens and technology has become one of the most difficult parenting issues today, and the mother of teenagers is examining the issue in a new documentary called “Screenagers.”

Dr. Delaney Ruston struggled with the dilemma facing many American families: How much tech was too much for her children, Tessa and Chase. She explores the issue in her film, telling ABC News, "I was completely struggling with how to get my kids to not be on screens all the time."

In the film, Ruston asked her daughter, Tessa, what she would do if she had a smartphone.

“I’d be cool ... and be able to look busy in awkward situations,” the girl replied.

Tessa said all her friends had smartphones and she’d feel more connected.

The film explores the science of how use of the devices affects young minds.

“When you are distracted by a device, you can’t have the conversations that would lead to the development of empathy and a sense of self,” Sherry Turkle, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in the film.

Nicholas Carr, author of the book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,”said in the film tstudies indicate that dopamine – a pleasure-producing brain chemical -- seems to be released whenever people find or seek out new information.

“If you carry around a smartphone, you are always pulling it out and glancing at it because you want that release of the pleasure-producing chemical,” he said.

Children spend an average of nearly 6.5 hours per day on screens, not including screen time for classroom or homework, and “Screenagers” finds plenty of parents who share Ruston’s struggle; from parents who are frustrated by teen selfie culture to those who think their children spend too much time playing video games.

Ruston found the best way to manage her own family's screen use was having boundaries, including a contract designed by the entire family to govern screen use.

“We don’t have cellphones in our bedrooms at night. Not at the dining room table. And also when we are in the car,” Ruston told ABC News.

It isn't always easy. Tessa says she wishes she had unlimited access but understands that the rules are there for a reason.

Ruston said it’s “still a struggle at times,” but added, “Now we feel like a group that is doing this together. And that’s been really helpful.”