Screenagers, Teenagers

This Thursday our school community viewed the documentary film, Screenagers, The Movie  at our parent orientation night.  We hoped to generate some conversation about how  human relationships with screens is rapidly evolving from previous generations.

The film was narrated by the parent of two teens, who was also a pediatrician. She gave the audience a glimpse into her family life with a son and a daughter, as she dealt with these issues herself, trying to establish reasonable limits with media.  She shared her scientific research and came  to a few conclusions about how to handle some common parenting questions.   The problem of gaming addiction and violent video  games was  explored as was social media, cyber-bullying and cell phone use. If you know some teenagers, I encourage you to invite them into a conversation with you about their digital experiences as this family did.

Seeing this film made me think about my own situation with my chldren and media use and how much it has changed over the years.  I started out as  homeschooling parent with very little knowledge about why I would want to consider limits on their media usage.  When they were young, they watched Teletubbies and Blues Clues and I didn’t think too much of it, but I did notice the glazed stupor that would overcome them when in the presence of a screen.   When they were in second grade and kindergarten we enrolled in a developing Waldorf school and I began to hear more about the importance of reducing media.  I limited my children to a Friday night movie once a week and gradually this included gaming devices like the Wii, and later the PS3 to a few hours on the weekends. This continued to increase as they became teens and add to that the cell phones at age 12-13.

My two teenage sons then transitioned into a regular public high school in Texas, after attending most of their grade school years in Waldorf schools, which are screen-free for children.   In their K-8 Waldorf school the children do not use any computers while at school.  Instead they garden, do woodworking projects, perform in class plays, play instruments, create art, sing, and yet they also study all of the regular subjects other children do like math, language, history and sciences.  All of the curriculum is taught directly by the teachers and the students create their own books about what they learn.  There are no standardized tests.  On occasion in the middle school Waldorf classes, the students  might do a project that  requires some internet research at home.    The school had a cell phone policy that for Grade 5 and up, the school would check in their cell phones at the front office at the start  of school and give them back at the end of day.  The students were allowed to use the phone in the event of an emergency by going to the office with teacher permission.  Overall, my sons complained very little about the way that the Waldorf school was media-free, though they pushed the limits of what I would allow at home constantly for more.

On the first day of freshman year, my oldest son left with his headphones and cell phone in hand and perhaps a new sense of freedom.  It felt a little bit like I lost a battle.  Later that day he was issued a tablet computer by his school. He had entered a new and different world where all of these things would be encouraged.  I wondered what this change would be like for him and his brother.

My oldest absolutely hated the tablet at first, but was required to have it with him at school everyday and to use it for everything, so he had no choice.  Their school only issues textbooks by special request, all textbooks are now online.  All assignments have to be turned in on a digital platform called “blackboard,” a virtual environment that allows him to do view digital material and communicate with his teachers.   More than once I think he wanted to throw the school tablet out his bedroom window or run over it with his skateboard. He no longer had a class teacher, he was forced to interact with a faceless machine.  About the teaching methods, he complained, “It’s so stupid! Mom, they don’t really teach anything.” Our family had many thoughtful dinner table conversations as they both truly began to discover how public education was different from the Waldorf school they came from.

After two years in public school, my sons can see a few positive and many negative aspects of this transition.   One positive is the greater ethnic diversity found in a large suburban high school in a Houston suburb.  Most of their Waldorf school friends were very wealthy, protected, and white.   At their new school, they have much more contact with diverse kinds of people.  They  adjusted to the technology demands and their grades are good.   School is easy for them.  There are many course offerings from which to choose and afterschool and sports opportunities.  Yet as great as some of those things are, the school does not meet all of their needs, nor does it mine.

The most obvious negative part of the experience is that of just being a face in the crowd. Last year, a girl in their school jumped off a balcony intentionally.  Not a single counselor visited my sons’ classrooms afterwards. It was as if the school never acknowledged the incident to the community at all, no letter home to parents, no email, nothing.  It was like it never happened.

I am seeing that through it all, my children are able to find ways to meet needs outside of school.  Derek meets his needs to be very physically active through teaching martial arts and doing ROTC.  Nathan skates, plays guitar, fishes,  gardens and builds things in his spare time. We try to eat as a family together as much as possible.

Digital citizenship is one thing, and it is important.  I want all three of my children to be part of the digital age we all live in, to know how to use these tools responsibly.  But in truth we don’t know what the effects of digital devices are on children’s long-term development. Most parents I meet are concerned over their teens’ social skills, their attention and focus, sleep deprivation, and their overexposure to inappropriate content.  I just wish that in society’s race to keep kids up-to-date on the latest technology that we would invest a little more time, thought, and care into the next generation’s psychological and physical well-being, as well as their ability to take a test and use a computer.

My youngest child is now 11 and she has had the strictest media usage limits of all three children.  Yet, I see her too pushing the limits  as the door of puberty is right around the corner.  As she matures, I will gradually give her more access while still giving her limits.  It’s an evolving learning process even after 17 years of parenting.


Common Sense Media – A resource for parents with top picks for family friendly media.




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