LENOX — Is the rapidly expanding time spent by students on electronics threatening face-to-face communication and even physical well-being?
That's the thorny issue to be explored during a film and discussion at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School organized by the school system's Wellness Committee.
The documentary "Screenagers" is directed by Dr. Delaney Ruston, a primary care physician in Seattle who found her own kids and others "scrolling through life with their rapid-fire thumbs and a 6-second attention span," spending 6.5 hours a day on devices.
"Screenagers" traces her personal struggles over social media, video games, academics and "Internet addiction" and includes insights from authors, psychologists and brain scientists, according to the film's website.
Following the screening, a panel discussion will be moderated by Dr. Claudia M. Gold, a prominent general and behavioral pediatrician, author and childhood mental health specialist based in Great Barrington.
Among the panelists will be several students and either Principal Michael Knybel or Assistant Principal Brian Cogswell.
Attendance by parents and students 10 and up is encouraged not only for Lenox residents but also other school districts as well as the general public, said schools Superintendent Timothy Lee, a member of the Wellness Committee. "It's open to anyone who wants to come," he emphasized.
The free presentation is at 6:30 p.m. May 25 in the Duffin Theatre at the school, 197 East St. It marks "the beginning of a community dialogue aimed at raising awareness about the impact and challenges of growing up in the digital age," an announcement from the school stated.
"I've known a lot of youngsters who have fallen into habitual use of video games, especially," Lee said. "In my own experience, adult screen time use is up to such a level that I wonder sometimes if we're all just becoming disconnected from one another because we're connecting through these devices instead."
The event was proposed to the Wellness Committee, which includes parents, faculty and administrators, by a member, Dr. Lisa Nelson, who has two youngsters in the local schools.
Nelson. a family practitioner in Pittsfield and director of medical education at Kripalu in Stockbridge, reached out to Gold to moderate the discussion.
"When I started the film, I was a mom having a hard time with my own teenage kids," said Ruston, the filmmaker, in a recent interview. "My 14-year-old son wanted to play more video games, and my 12-year-old daughter was always on social media. I was at a loss. I would suddenly get mad and then feel guilty."
"I realized speaking with other parents that we all felt paralyzed about our kids and screen overload and that it's only getting worse," she told The New York Times shortly after her documentary was released earlier this year.
Ruston states that excessive screen time can harm the physical development of young people's brains, shortening attention spans, disrupting sleep and learning.
"Our current fast-paced digital media, from flash games and online videos to social media feeds and constant texting, seems to tire the brain," she said. "This has major implications for kids and how they reach their full academic potential."
Ruston advocates no phones in bedrooms at night and no phone use in the car.
She also points out that parents need to set rules around their own use of devices.
"You can't punish your kids for breaking the rules when you can't put your own devices down," she said. "Also, don't make rules that don't make sense, and remember that humans respond better to reward than punishment."
Ruston also warns that "80 percent of video games have violent content. The data shows an increased risk in aggressive thoughts and actions. It is not surprising that these games are not increasing thoughts of empathy and generosity — the traits that I would hope as a society we would want to promote."
As moderator of the discussion, Gold said in an interview, she plans to emphasize listening to the concerns and feelings expressed by the audience.
"People are struggling at many levels," she said. "We should focus on the value of human connection and actual face time. The loss of social skills is one big problem."
Conceding that device usage coincides with youngsters' growing tendency to resist the advice of adults, Gold stressed that "we need another way in. Pre-teens and teens will look up from their screens when it becomes cool to look up. The motivation comes from their peers."
Each family has to navigate the issue in ways that work for them, she said.
"We need to encourage everyone to notice how different they feel when they look at each other," she said. "Our ability to communicate face to face is central to our overall health."
In the Lenox public school classrooms, Lee said, "teachers don't want to see cellphones come out of backpacks or bags at the elementary level. At the middle and high school, the teachers realize that students are interacting more with their devices."
Lee cautions about potential student access to social media during class.
"We see students using an iPad in class and we think that might be an appropriate use if they're typing or doing research," the superintendent said. "But we're never quite sure. There might be a closed window that they can expand with one click and they're doing something else."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
If you go ...
What: Showing of the documentary film "Screenagers" and a followup panel discussion on "growing up in the digital age."
When: 6:30 p.m. May 25
Where: Duffin Theatre, Lenox Memorial Middle and High School,197 East St.
Who: Dr. Claudia M. Gold, discussion moderator, with panelists including several high school students and a top LMMHS administrator.
Cost: Free to all parents and students 10 and older from any school district. Also open to the general public.