I started taking filmmaking classes during my medical residency in San Francisco, excited to learn how the power of real-life stories could help promote social change. I sought out teachers who were doing just that, such as Judith Helfand, whose film Blue Vinyl (HBO) examined toxins in our lives. She galvanized audiences to go beyond watching the movie and take action.
It was during that time that I made my first film. If She Knew told the story of a patient facing an issue related to her culture that was unfortunately absent from our medical education. I was thrilled to be awarded a grant to provide it to all medical schools.
The stories I have chosen to tell since then continue to feature topics that affect our lives but get too little attention, such as mental health. With Unlisted: A Story of Schizophrenia (PBS), about my father, and Hidden Pictures (PBS), about global mental health, I learned about using film for advocacy. I partnered with groups such as The National Alliance on Mental Illness and the World Health Organization, discovering innovative ways to promote compassion and action.
Like Unlisted, Screenagers emerged directly from a chapter of my own life. I was facing a challenge that caught me off-guard — raising teenagers whose attention was increasingly consumed by screen-based activities. With a 14-year-old son who loved video game time and a 12-year-old daughter who was lobbying hard for her own smart phone, I encountered frequent battles on both fronts. I would work on being tolerant, then suddenly lose my patience, and then feel guilty for getting mad.
Meanwhile I could see that my kids’ schools were not improving the situation. First of all, administrations were becoming more lenient about phones in classrooms even though many teachers were exasperated trying to police phones. Second of all, classroom time looking at “digital citizenship” issues was generally nonexistent. At my daughter’s middle school, the digital citizenship “curriculum” consisted of a single assembly by a police officer who scared the kids about stranger danger and then went on to blame the students for cyberbullying. Science has shown that scare tactics do not effectively influence children’s behavior.
As a physician, I became increasingly anxious to know how our new tech world affects children’s development. I started finding new research on the impact of video gaming and social media on self-esteem, empathy, social skill development, academics and brain development. As a mom, I wanted to examine how we can better manage screen time in our homes and schools. What does science teach us about teaching self-control? How can we best encourage youth to find their own ways to achieve balance? What limits and rules are reasonable and how do we implement them?
Eventually, given the struggles I was facing at home, along with all the things I was researching, I decided to start making a film. I needed to find stories that addressed the questions and ideas floating in my head. I was completely surprised to learn how hard it would be to capture family and school challenges on film. Finding stories for my past mental health films had been difficult, but this was harder. I had underestimated how private parenting is. I started to see it in myself, noticing that I was too shy to tell friends my rules, such as the one about prohibiting cell phones in the car. Other friends were embarrassed to tell me they had no rules. And we were all self-conscious about how hard it was to enforce any rules we did have.
Fortunately, my team and I did find incredible families, teachers and children across the U.S. from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds—and I am so grateful to all of these people and schools! They shared experiences that are relatable, very personal, but not sensational. I decided to include my own family’s struggles too. Some of the stories are cautionary tales that give us an encounter with scenarios we hope to avoid by knowing about them in advance, but mostly they inspire empathy, understanding and action.
When it came time to launch Screenagers, it was clear to me that the film needed to be shown in public spaces, to bring together kids, parents, educators, health providers and policy makers for conversations that can lead to change in our homes and communities.
And indeed this approach has been incredibly effective. People have organized hundreds of packed screenings and we get daily feedback of how change is occurring.
These public screenings and discussions have been effective for many reasons including the fact that they:
Reveal the magnitude of the problem. Nearly every family and school faces similar struggles. The next step is to talk openly about solutions. “I didn’t realize other families were sorting out rules too,” my daughter told me after participating in her first post-film discussion.
Increase understanding of why balance is needed. That gives us the confidence to set appropriate tech limits. For example, what if it became normal for parents of young kids to talk about ensuring offline time during playdates?
Inspire communities to work together. Young people and adults can collaborate to better manage screen time in our homes and schools.
We all know that our new lives with kids and tech is challenging—I still struggle at home. I have learned that I can’t always know if I am parenting the “right” way but I can know that I am parenting with integrity…integrity by following my belief that I have a responsibility to provide my kids with the most diverse type of experiences as possible.
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