There was a fleeting moment when I had full control of my kids’ screen situation. No phones were allowed at the dinner table or in bedrooms. The only accessible computer had parental protections and sat in an open living area. And the kids had to earn their daily screen time with outdoor exercise.

Starshine Roshell

BOOM. Take that, demons of the digital era. We were cultivating no rudeness, lewdness, or sedentary dude-ness in my house.

But … that was a few years back. Now a meal rarely goes by when someone doesn’t whip out a phone to check a fact, share a video, pull up a photo. Our phones are our alarm clocks; of course they’re in our bedrooms. Computers outnumber humans two-to-one chez Roshell. And it’s hard to track screen time when our 6th grader’s homework, entertainment, social interaction, and even reading is on a screen. Heck, the timer he uses to monitor screen time is on an iPad.

Like a lot of parents, I’ve watched my kids’ faces turn permanently, inevitably screenward with a mild sense of panic. Sure, we love that they can game with their cousins across the country, text us when the bus is running late, and explore their budding interest in photography. But what’s lost when developing minds become consumed by their digital devices?

That’s the question a new documentary set out to answer. In Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age, a physician and mom explores the impact tech time has on kids’ minds, families, school performance, and friendships. UCSB Arts & Lectures screens it for free on Sunday, October 16, at the Arlington Theatre, and it’s a compelling watch for both parents and teens. You’ll see a school district that banned cell phones, a girl shamed by a photo that went viral, and a boy sent to video-game-addiction rehab.

But I’ll be honest: What haunted me in the days after I saw Screenagers was a pigtailed girl describing her mommy — and her mommy’s phone: “She talks to me, and then she goes back to it for five minutes. Then she talks to me; then she goes back. Then she talks to me; then she goes back … Maybe she could spend a little bit less time on it.”

I flushed with cold, ugly recognition at her words. That was me. How often do I catch myself “listening” to my son as I’m checking my phone? More importantly: How often does he catch me? I may be reading a text or email, checking the weather, or pulling up directions — even just glancing at the time. To him, it must all look the same: It’s the most important thing to me.

“I like it when you put it away and give me your full attention,” he said when I mustered the courage to ask him. “Then if I have something exciting to tell you, it’ll have the full effect.”

I confessed my guilt and shame to the film’s producer, Scilla Andreen, on the phone last week — and she felt my pain.

“When I told my kids I was making this movie, they were like, ‘God, I hope you learn from it!’” she said. “I’m attached to my phone. When I put it down, I feel like I’m drinking a lot of water and there’s no bathroom around.”

But she’s set some limits for herself since making the film. “It’s never too late,” she says — and she has higher hopes for the next generation than for their less-disciplined parents. “I believe that kids are getting smarter. They will self-regulate and find balance. These kids care where their food comes from. They care who’s making their clothing. They care what technology is doing to them, as well.”

I hope so, because my screen-addled mind keeps drifting back to that anti-drug commercial I saw so often as a TV-watching child of the ’80s. An angry dad confronts his son, demanding to know who taught him how to roll a joint. “You, all right?” the teen shouts back. “I learned it by watching you!”


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