Delaney Ruston, Filmmaker of Screenagers

Posted on in People in Your Neighborhood by Rob Sidon

Growing Up in the Digital Age


Delaney Ruston is a filmmaker, Stanfordtrained physician, and mother of two. She grew up on welfare at 63rd and Telegraph in Berkeley with her single mom. As a girl, she was exposed to the work of local documentarian Les Blank and caught the bug for filmmaking. After graduating from Berkeley High in 1984, she went on to Cornell to become a Fulbright Scholar before returning to the Bay Area for medical training.

Her estranged father was a schizophrenic with whom she later reconnected—an event she chronicled in her first film, Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia. Her second film, Hidden Pictures: A Personal Journey into Global Mental Health was filmed in China, India, France, and South Africa.

Earlier this year, Delaney released Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age, which is currently earning broad praise and media interest. We spoke with Delaney about the impact of the online world and what families can do to find balance.

Common Ground: Congratulations on the success of Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age. The title captures the zeitgeist of our era. What are some of the core messages?

Delaney Ruston: I am concerned about the mental health impact of all this excessive screen time on kids, on social brain development. I want to help parents find solutions to help kids find balance and mitigate the risks.

You’re a medical doctor and a filmmaker. Those don’t typically go together. How did you get into this duel career?

Growing up in Berkeley, I was living in a house with just my mom—a bit like a commune, where we rented a room. Les Blank, a locally famous documentarian, lived there and I would see his movies. That impacted me; I always wanted to do that. When I was at Stanford medical school, cameras became affordable so I started doing man-on-the-street stuff and going to film classes in San Francisco when I wasn’t seeing patients.

My first feature documentary, Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia, is about my reconnecting with my father, who had schizophrenia and had been in hiding for many years. I used to meet him at Caffe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue. He was really bright and wanted to be a college professor, but his schizophrenia made it impossible.

You went to Berkeley High and on to the Ivy Leagues, but it doesn’t sound like you grew up with a silver spoon in your mouth.

No. It was a lot of single moms on welfare. A lot of us had hippie dads on Telegraph Avenue. We lived at 63rd and Telegraph.

As a medical doctor, you know the human body hasn’t evolved significantly in the last 50,000 years, but humans are being exposed to electromagnetic devices in an unprecedented way. What health risks do you see?

What the science shows that is particularly concerning is this blue light that gets emitted from screens and its effects on kids’ ability to fall asleep and maintain a healthy sleep cycle. These are now well documented, as well as the ramifications of decreased concentration and mental health mood. That is my area and why I advocate for alarm clocks and for devices to be out of kids’ rooms. I don’t know as much about the larger impact of electromagnetic waves.

We’ve done articles about EMF (electromagnetic frequencies) and SARS (specific absorption rates), which cellphone companies don’t like to talk about. Each phone is tested and given a SARS rating, which must conform to a legal limit. SARS measures the rate at which heat energy is absorbed into the body, but these are tested against adults who have thicker skulls. SARS ratings would be far worse if measured on kids. Incidentally, the iPhone is at the uppermost extremity of the legal limit. Laptops and tablets are problematic because they are radiating devices used in proximity to the reproductive organs. I wonder why there aren’t more studies done about this.

In the film, I mention how the gaming industry spent more lobbying money than the NRA did in 2012 to prevent a bill proposed to research the effects of video games on violent acts. It didn’t get the funding, which is a shame because we need more data like that.

I have a 13-year-old who was deprived of devices for the better part of his early childhood. Then he was cautiously allowed computer games, and I observe facets of addiction. Once I closed the laptop on him because it was time for sleep, and he transformed into Gollum. I have to wonder whether the forbidden fruit isn’t sweeter for him and whether he’s just making up for lost time?

All kids will say, “If you take it away, I’m just going to want it more,” but I can’t find science to support that. There is research supporting the idea that kids are not born with an innate ability to have self control. “Dad, I just can’t help myself” is true. Anecdotally, in my observing families for the past three and a half years, I find that working with kids to accept realistic limits and to give rewards, as opposed to parents being in a reactive state, can avert irrational consequences. Because the brain is constantly learning and evolving and changing, with the right approach, a 13-year-old can reboot and can get more self-control to where it’s not this war.

The devices stimulate dopamine release. Do we have an infinite supply of dopamine?

I cannot speculate as to whether dopamine receptors saturate as they do for serotonin. We’ve seen that people whose overuse of the Internet and videogaming actually show similar MRI patterns as drug-addicted people going into rehab. One of the telltale signs is they build up a tolerance to where they mentally—and almost physically—crave more play. I infer that to get the same dopamine hit requires a greater exposure time.

Videogames are designed to hook kids. Are you aware of evidence that videogames bring on ADHD?

It’s such a charged issue. I wouldn’t personally want to go on record saying that. I think there are correlations, but I don’t think anybody has done direct, controlled studies to show that. What’s concerning is that ADHD sufferers are particularly drawn to devices, but they are the ones most challenged with self-control issues.

I’ve had parents say to me, “These digital kids are different from you and me. We were born in the analog age, but they were born with computers.” I do hear of kids achieving good grades all the while being on social media, texting, gaming, and surfing the web. What do you say about this multitasking phenomenon?

One can’t multitask, obviously. It’s just switching back and forth, and it’s a myth that it doesn’t come at a cost. It fatigues the brain. The film documents a study where a random group of kids took cognitive tests either after watching fast-paced screens or after drawing on paper with friends. Those who had been exposed to watching fast-paced screens did worse on the test. It’s a call to action for parents that we help kids learn to focus for extended periods of time.

It amazes me that any homework gets done with all the rabbit holes on the web. Still, some kids excel and get admitted to competitive colleges, but isn’t there a digital divide that falls along economic lines?

We showed a study that looked at kids’ test scores over time in North Carolina. After a computer was introduced into the homes of economically disadvantaged families, the kids spent significantly more time on screens—the theory being that the computer became more of a distraction from doing homework—and their test scores actually went down. This is the new digital divide we are concerned about, that more affluent and educated parents are touting the benefits of education and are more around to help monitor computer usage.

Kids really want boundaries, right?

Absolutely. Middle schoolers in particular will all raise their hands to say, “Thank goodness my parents have boundaries because I would be on the phone all the time.” There’s that intensity of wanting social acceptance, but they know they don’t feel good after spending too much time and not developing other parts of their skillset and personhood. Older kids too are open to having guidelines, and that is when getting more of their insight is important. The other day, my older son shared how he was feeling worse at the end of the days when he was on Facebook more than he wanted to be. The conversations become more mindful as kids get older.

One of the solutions you strongly recommend is Tech Talk Tuesday—what is that?

Tech Talk Tuesday is based on the idea that none of this comes from one talk with our kids and, boom, we are set. It takes ongoing routine conversations to help our kids get balance. We need to engage them in a way that we have not been doing—it has come from feelings of frustration and loss of control. The goal of the short talks is you start off with talking about something positive that is happening around tech in our lives, and then we talk about goals and what could be better. On our website we put up ideas for Tech Talk Tuesdays and we receive ideas from visitors.

I do most of my work on the laptop and cellphone, and my son likes to point this out to me. What do you say to us guilty parents?

I say there’s no way you’re going to mentor well unless you define some goals for yourself too. Pick something you are working on and bring it up to the family, such as not checking the phone at red lights or some other time that you define. Become honest, vulnerable, and accountable; it really changes the dynamic. We’re all trying to find more balance with technology.

You said that rewards and positivity work better than the reactive, punitive approach.

The science is compelling that the reward center in the brain where the dopamine is very active lights up most in adolescents with positive, rewarding, new information. It turns out that the part of the brain that is more receptive to negative consequences is not as fully developed in adolescents, so they don’t respond as well to punishments. That has helped me because it’s harder to do positive incentives than to do negative ones. We all tend to react and grab the device and say, “You can’t have this,” but it instills sneaking and anger and not a sense of really wanting to make a change. Better to get their opinions and get them involved in conversations. Ask them, “How does that look to you, when you see other people constantly on the phone and not paying attention?” Get them to see these things and they will start to agree that it makes sense at certain times to be off their devices.

That is uplifting. Are you fundamentally okay with the amount of time your 14-year-old daughter is online, or it just a big compromise?

Do I wish that there wasn’t a smartphone? Yes. I wish at age 14, she were always present in the moment, but I have to face the fact that—it was our decision—she can have it. Some families postponed it until after 13 or not give in at all. And there is complete room for that too. I do feel good about agreements that we don’t use cellphones in the car, or when we are spending time at a meal, or even out on a day together. Or at least very little. Having those guidelines is paramount to the richness of family time and has been helpful for our family.

Any other best piece s of advice to parents who want to raise wholesome, wellrounded digital kids?

I want to counteract the myth that kids are overscheduled and stressed and need more downtime. Science shows having meaningful offline activities including helping around the house, sports, community service, afterschool art projects—all of those things help develop the kind of skillsets we want our kids to have: responsibility, self-control, empathy, academics. The kids who are doing 20 hours a week of these activities still do significantly better than kids who are not. Good to think out of the box to find new projects for them to be busy.

My threefold approach of (1) having short, positive conversations about technology, the Tech Tuesdays; (2) listen to their thoughts and not react, and (3) write these down. So often we have vague conversations about being on the phone less, but that is not going to achieve the goal. We want to set them up for success. So writing down guidelines and rewarding with positive consequences is critical to their learning self-control.

Rob Sidon is publisher and editor in chief of Common Ground.

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