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Helping Teens Learn to Balance Technology: Screenagers

Delaney Ruston is a family physician and documentary filmmaker. Her most recent documentary is Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age. Delaney also founded the initiative We talked to Ruston about “screen free zones” and other systems she and her family have implemented to balance technology.

Q: What prompted you to make the movie?

Ruston: There is a tsunami happening with tweens getting smartphones. Every family now has to deal with this. As a parent, I wanted to explore how to make sure tweens learn to balance technology. And as a physician, I was thinking about what effects an enormous amount of screen time—the average is six hours per day—has on development.

Q: The movie offers some helpful takeaways, like creating a screen-free zone in your home. Why is it important for parents to step in when it comes to screen-time?

Ruston: The dopamine in our brains is most active during the teenage years, so screen time is more compelling during these years, too. The idea that we can just tell teenagers, “Do it less” or, “Find moderation on your own” is not going to promote the kind of self-control that we want them to develop.

It is asking too much? We need to help them be off of devices for some period of time every day. Anyone can create a screen-free zone in their home; we are doing our teenagers a favor when we create those.

Preventing Home Technology From Taking Over Our Lives

Q: How do you make sure screen-free zones stay that way?

Ruston: We have a rule where we don’t use cell phones in the car. Instead, we talk and listen to music. It’s not always easy. Just last night my mom was in town and my daughter was in the back seat. Because I was talking to my mom, it made my daughter feel like she was off the hook and she went on her phone. I had to remind her of our family rule and gently take the phone from her. She just wants to check in with her friends, but if we want to have rules, then it takes effort to make sure it happens. Overall, we are happy as a family to have this particular rule, but we also know that we are all susceptible to the pull of our devices in the car.

Q: Many parents would find themselves in a fight if they tried to take the phone away.

Ruston: You need to talk about your rules—and your consequences—in advance. We talk about this a lot and make decisions about our rules together; my daughter was part of the rule-making process, so she understands our agreement. She might be frustrated in that moment, but she understands why I took her phone. It’s not arbitrary. I wouldn’t, for example, just take the phone from her because I feel she’s been on it too long. That doesn’t fit with any defined rules in our home.

Q: You advocate creating a technology contract with your teenager. Can you elaborate on that?

Ruston: Yes, and I recommend the one that Janell Burley Hofmann wrote for the Huffington Post. I learned that taking time to talk about and write down our philosophies about technology offered a roadmap for our family to move through this constantly changing technological world. It’s about sitting down with your tweens and coming up with rules, guidelines, and realistic consequences. And it’s for the parents as much as the tweens. We are all vulnerable to the downside of technology.

Q: How frequently do you revisit the contract?

Ruston: We have a weekly meeting where we talk about technology. We call it Tech Talk Tuesday.

Q: What happens during Tech Talk Tuesday?

Ruston: These are short, calm conversations, and we’ve found they do a lot to counteract the ways in which technology is separating families. When making the film, I saw first-hand the impact of technology on family life. I’d hear siblings say that the only time they talked to each other was when they were knocking on the bathroom door.

This separation is very real. It’s happening all over. The ability of these devices to take our attention away from those people right around us is so strong. It’s becoming the norm to be in the same room, but to be mentally and emotionally separated thanks to our personal devices.

Q: What topics do you talk about during Tech Talk Tuesday?

Ruston: Just last night we talked about the idea of multitasking. My son said when he is on his computer and his sister wants his attention, he has a hard time shifting his attention away from his screen. He also said that he feels the same way about my daughter. When he walks by and says, “Hi,” he barely gets a response from her.

Or after dinner, for example, when I go back to my computer, they don’t feel like I’m going to be available to them. So, going forward, I will try to be more aware of that. If they talk to me, or need me, I will try to step away from the computer.

Q: What do you think about monitoring your teen’s social media activity?

Ruston: It really depends on your child. Most parents worry about what’s happening on social media. I think parents should worry more about whether their child will come to them with a problem. A lot of tweens won’t because they worry that their parent will take away their phone. So parents might be missing an opportunity to help during an important time.

When my daughter got her phone at 13, I told her that I could look at anything at any time. But now that she’s in 8th grade, we’ve altered that. Instead of just picking up her phone, I will ask to take a look at what’s going on with her texts. I let her be in control of this and walk me through her texts or social media or whatever. The point isn’t to trap her, but to let her know that I’m here if things aren’t going well—that we can work together on this stuff.

Susan Borison, mother of five, is the founder and editor of Your Teen Media. Because parenting teenagers is humbling and shouldn’t be tackled alone.

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