How much screen time is too much? What happens to brain development when we spend too much time online?
"Screenagers," A new documentary showing at the Sheldon Theatre at the end of the month aims to shed light on the psychological and physiological impacts of kids and teeangers' ever-increasing digital consumption.
Dr. Delaney Ruston, director of the film, learned that kids spend an average of six and a half hours tuned into smartphone and computer screens each day, not including school work. She also cited a study suggesting screen time increases dopamine production, which can lead to behavior that mimics addiction.
Despite the alarming findings the film illustrates, discussion was among the most significant methods Rustin identified to establish boundaries for screen time and appropriate use of social media.
Local nonprofit Women Cents hopes to facilitate important dialogue with a free screening of the documentary at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 29, at the Sheldon Theatre, followed by a community discussion. Educators, parents, teenagers and children are invited to watch the documentary and join the conversation afterword.
"It would be good for people in the community to hear what others — not all of our children are the same," said Neela Mollgaard, Women Cents board member. "It will be an open discussion among other caregivers, educators and kids about what is normal."
The screening will be the group's latest event aimed at educate and open dialogue on issues affecting kids and families in the community. Past discussions have included childhood hunger and homelessness in our area.
"We try to keep it on current issues that are affecting children and families," Mollgaard said. "Obviously the use of screens in any household right now is really one of the biggest stressors in families — what's appropriate use, best guidelines, best practices for parents and kids."
The discussion will extend to Twin Bluff Middle School, where students and staff also will view and discuss the documentary.
Principal Chris Palmatier said it's not unusual for fifth-graders to carry cellphones for safety reasons. Although the devices can be useful for parents to keep track of their children, Palmatier described them as "portals" to infinite content — both good and bad.
"It's so big and it's so extensive, it plays a part in their life," he said. "We see social media issues with texting and things like that with students. It's part of our obligation to teach them how to be appropriate when they respond to those things."
The school's policy prohibits use of mobile devices during the instructional day. Any phones spotted in the classroom or halls will be confiscated and must be picked up by a parent.
Although Palmatier rarely sees issues with students' phones at schools — cell reception is poor at the school, anyway — the problems usually extend to the home, where students often have round-the-clock access to social media.
School counselor Megan Latch said she regularly deals with issues stemming from social media.
"It's hard for students at this age to know the boundaries and know the lifelong impact something they said quickly to a friend can have," she said. "We do have to deal with that here and help pick up the pieces after they've made a regrettable decision or they're hurt by something someone else shared. It's a big role we've had to take on."
Twin Bluff staff tap into opportunities such as computer classes and conduct assemblies to address issues like online bullying or inappropriate use of devices. Latch said they also make a point to connect with students and help them find caring adults in the school and community.
Although school involvement plays a role in responsible online behavior and device usage, parents share the responsibility.
"I think each family operates differently; what works in one family won't work in the next," Latch said. "I think having some clear guidelines helps with what the expectations are in your family, and knowing what your child is doing as much as you can."
Sarah Reichert, a therapist at Comprehensive Behavioral Health Services in Red Wing, sees both benefits and problems linked to use of devices like smart phones.
Some of the patients she treats for anxiety use their devices to download meditation apps, listen to calming music or stay in touch with friends and family. For others, the compulsion to check their phone can aggravate anxiety, even during therapy sessions.
The difference, she said, is recognizing normal use of technology.
"It's not normal if it's interfering with sleep, homework, social interaction," she said. "For example, someone won't go with you somewhere because they won't be able to text, or won't go to a movie because they have to be texting."
Reichert echoed Latch's advice for parents to keep open communication with their kids, but recognized the challenges.
"Technology changes so fast, so while parents want to protect kids and know what's going on, it's hard to keep up with how advanced it gets and how it's always changing," she said. "I just think we have to keep our communication with our kids open and keep our dialogue open about it. Ask kids what they do to protect themselves when it does get nasty, not in a 'don't do this,' but with open-ended questions about TV, phone and gaming usage."
If you go:
When: 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 29
Where: Sheldon Theatre
View a trailer for "Screenagers" below: