May 16, 2016


Nelson Branco, MD FAAP
Tamalpais Pediatrics
Larkspur, California

I recently had the opportunity to watch the documentary Screenagers with some friends, colleagues and two of my children.  This documentary about the pervasive nature of screens in our lives and environment is relevant, informative and well done. The movie centers on a physician parent’s decision to give her middle-school aged daughter a smartphone and explores the ways that screens play a role, both positive and negative, in our lives.

This movie resonated with me as a pediatrician and a parent. I have tried to be thoughtful and balanced about both the rules I set for my family and the anticipatory guidance I give about screen time. Time will tell if my children have learned to manage the different screens in their lives, and whether I have modeled responsible behavior. Nonetheless, there are principles that we can use to guide us when giving advice to families and kids around screen time.

The amount of information at our fingertips and the ability to connect and communicate with virtually anyone in our lives is truly incredible.  It’s not surprising that it is so addictive – these devices are useful, entertaining and engaging. When we deny this we lose credibility with the kids in our lives.

Minecraft is cool.  It really is – spend some time with a Minecraft-savvy tween and you’ll see.  Social media at it’s best is fun and interesting. Texting can be a good way to communicate – more immediate than email but not as intrusive as a phone call. Video games can teach kids to try, fail and try again.  Movies and TV help us relax, share stories and learn.

There are well-documented negatives, of course. Few of us may qualify for the DSM-V diagnosis of Internet addiction, but we all react to the jolt of dopamine that we get from a new email or text.  Minecraft can take over time that could be spent playing outside, reading, doing homework or being creative with another medium besides animated blocks and elements.  Teens can use social media and text messaging to bully, harass or hurt their friends and schoolmates. Violent video games can expose kids to sights and sounds that we would like them to avoid, and can be addictive as well. Movies and TV shows can model unhealthy behavior and unwelcome stereotypes.

 As parents, we work hard to protect our children from harm. In my practice, most families are aware of the need for rules around media and limit their young children’s screen time.  I see it become more difficult in the middle and high school years, once smartphones become ubiquitous. I also see parents who think nothing of pulling out their smartphone while waiting, or while I am talking to or examining their child.

 I’m sure most of us have done the same. We often use the excuse that we are doing “work” when we’re on our screens.  We should remember that teens can use the same excuse.  Their “work” is to connect with their friends and form an identity. Social media, texting, Skype and email are all ways to do that – more efficiently and more pervasively than the phone calls and hanging out that our generation did as teens.

If we are going to teach our kids to use screens and media wisely we need to monitor and track our own use.  Are we reaching for the phone as soon as it dings, even if we’re in the middle of a conversation?  Do we stand around checking email or social media while waiting in line or sitting with our kids in an office? Do we have screen-free times for the whole family?

We can’t expect our kids to learn to eat vegetables if we aren’t serving and eating them ourselves, and we can’t expect kids to use devices and media responsibly if we aren’t doing it as well.

 Screenagers touches on these same points, and uses stories and examples to illustrate these topics. This movie won’t break any new ground for pediatricians – these are topics that we talk and think about every day.

What I liked about this movie is that it gathers interesting information and presents it in a balanced and engaging way. It opens the door for consideration and conversation. I wish more documentaries about parenting, families and kids did this as well.

The movie is being screened in many communities. I highly recommend you see it and engage your colleagues, kids and other parents in the discussion. For information about the movie, visit their website: