The Documentary

“Screenagers: Growing up in the Digital Age” is a documentary created by Dr. Delaney Ruston that explores the impact that technology – specifically, screen-time – has on the daily lives of today’s teenagers. The documentary covers a variety of screen uses, from social media to gaming, from texting to Internet addiction. Throughout the documentary, teenagers and their parents tell the stories of their struggles with screen-time. Whether the distracting nature of handheld phones, the image-obsessed world of social media, or online bullying, teenagers are often negatively impacted by their constant exposure to screens.

The Numbers

  • American teenagers spend an average of 6.5 hours per day in front of a screen.
  • 92% of teenagers go online daily, while 24% describe being online “almost constantly.”
  • 73% of American teenagers have smartphones.
  • 71% of teenagers use Facebook; 52% use Instagram; 41% use Snapchat; and 33% use Twitter.
  • 84% of teenage boys play video games.
  • Teenage boys spend an average of 56 minutes per day playing video games.
  • Data From: The Common Sense Census: Media Use By Tweens and Teens; and Pew Research Center.

The Science

Research to better understand the full neurological, psychological, and developmental impacts of screen-time on teenagers is ongoing. According to Psychology Today, “excessive screen-time appears to impair brain structure and function.” While the studies generally suggest that the impact is most significant in the frontal lobe, other specific adverse effects on the teenage brain include gray matter atrophy, compromised white matter integrity, reduced cortical thickness, impaired cognitive functioning, and impaired dopamine functioning.

Studies have also concluded that screen-time impacts sleep for teenagers that have televisions or phones in their bedrooms. In fact, the results – which include a loss of 20 minutes of sleep per night and higher instances of perceived insufficient sleep – have prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to recommend eliminating screens from a teenager’s room.

Technology can also be detrimental and damaging to key interpersonal skills. Sherry Turke, a Psychology professor at MIT, says, “when you are distracted by a device, you can’t have the conversations that would lead to the development of empathy and a sense of self.”

What to Do about it

The documentary "Screen Agers" suggests that parents create a contract with their teenagers that explicitly outlines screen-time and the "do" and "don'ts" of technology in the household. Parents and teenagers should work together to develop the contract, as an open dialogue between adults and teenagers about these sorts of issues is vital to successful implementation. It is not enough to limit screen-time; teenagers should understand the rationale behind the limits and be offered alternatives.

It is also true that not all screen-time is equal. The content and the quality (passive vs. active) of the screen-time are important factors to consider in addition to the sheer time. Passive screen-time includes activities such as watching TV, while active screen-time would be activities such as video-chatting with another individual. Co-engagement can also work to make screen-time more healthy and productive: watching a movie as a family, for example, and engaging with one another and the film can be a positive way for a family to utilize screen-time.


  • The Common Sense Census: Media Use By Tweens and Teens
  • Screen Agers Documentary Website
  • Pew Research Center
  • Psychology Today
  • ABC News