Technology lesson for Fort Frye teens

Students view film on the impact of being totally connected

BEVERLY –Does the pervasive use of cellphones, laptops and other electronic devices have an impact on developing minds? Do those bright screens have a dark side?

A documentary film shown to more than 100 Fort Frye junior high and high school students, along with faculty, staff and board of education members Thursday morning offered profound warnings from scientists, parents and students.

The lights went down and the screen in the auditorium lit up at 8 a.m. on the last day of classes before Christmas break, and the voice of the narrator, Dr. Delaney Ruston, opened the film by saying that when she was growing up the pinnacle of digital technology was Pong, a game played using arrow keys on a keyboard to deflect a moving pixellated ball in the manner of ping pong. Laughter erupted in the room.

Children now, the film said, spend an average of six and a half hours a day looking at screens of one kind or another. The use of cellphones has become a determining factor in the social dynamics of children’s relationships with their families, friends and strangers, and also affects the way their brains develop. The urge to acquire new information is a natural feature of animal and human brains, it said, allowing people to detect food, threats and other elements in our environment important for survival. A flow of digital information feeds that natural tendency, making it a rewarding activity on a very basic level.

The film centered around the efforts of several families, students and teachers to determine the best ways to manage time and usage of phones, computers and gaming to create an optimum balance for the need to be connected to the world, to enjoy the recreational opportunities of digital games and social media, and to resist the urge to be continually stimulated by the torrent of information, social interaction and amusement available immediately and nearly everywhere. The small screens have become windows into the world.

Much of the discussion in the film centered on setting limits about when, how and under what circumstances cellphones could be used by the younger members of families and at school. A sense of discipline about the use of digital access was repeatedly given importance by authorities who spoke.

“Self-control is a better predictor of success than intelligence,” one said.

Scientists who have conducted lab studies about the effect of screen viewing spoke about their findings, with Nino Ramirez, a brain researcher at a children’s institute in Seattle, noting that mice exposed to bombardments of flickering multi-colored light performed noticeably worse in maze-solving than those who weren’t subjected to the light.

The brains of the exposed mice showed underdeveloped hippocampal areas, the researcher said, and those changes were not reversible, Ramirez said.

Boys and girls tend to diverge in their digital interests, with girls more engaged in social media and boys with video gaming. Both have their dangerous sides.

The film documented the experience of one high school student who became completely overwhelmed with video gaming when he moved away to college, failing his courses. He ended up spending months at Restart, a rehab center in Washington state. It also chronicled the experience of a girl who became a middle-school social outcast after complying with a boy’s request for a lurid photo.

First-person shooter games, one researcher said, were initially

developed by the military in part to desensitize soldiers to the act of killing other people, and that effect can apply to young people who use the games persistently as well.

After the film, 11 juniors gathering in Kathy Allen-Bidwell’s classroom for discussion. The teacher started things off by noting that she celebrated her daughter’s birthday by buying her a laptop.

“Now I’m thinking, maybe not such a good decision,” she said.

The group was given a sheet of questions to answer about the experience, and talked about the film as they went through the questions.

On the subject of ‘What did you learn?’ one said, “A lot of stuff” but another responded that she “already knew all that.”

The amount of time spent on social media was a puzzling question for many, with one girl answering four hours a week, another asking, “Can I just put, ‘A lot’?”

One point the film made was that many young people resort to consulting their cellphones as a diversion for managing awkward social situations. When asked whether they used their phones that way, the entire group nodded with an emphatic, “Yes.”

Morgan Borich, a 17-year-old who intends to study business and accounting in college, said she sometimes feels like she spends too much time in the digital world but not to the extent that it worries her. The film was valuable, she said, “but mostly I think parents should see it.”

She uses her cellphone for social media updates but she also noted that smart phones, computers and laptops have become essential features of life because the nature of school academics requires it — all schools are now fully integrated into digital studies, including research.

When asked if she ever consults books in the library, she simply said, “No.”

Although she said there was little in the film she didn’t already know, a couple of things disturbed her.

“The mice,” she said, “and the rehab. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a rehab for this.”

Parents will have a chance to view the documentary in the new year. It will be shown at Fort Frye High School starting at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 11.

At a glance

“Screenagers: Growing up in the Digital Age”

¯ What: A documentary film about the impact on children, parents, families and schools of using electronic devices.

¯ When: 6:30 p.m. Jan. 11.

¯ Where: Fort Frye High School.

¯ How long: 50 minutes.

¯ For information: 740-984-2376.