Cell phone rules for home, school discussed at St. Anne’s film screening

A film screening at St. Anne’s-Belfield School sparked a discussion about how to help children set limits on their use of smartphones and video games.

St. Anne’s showed the documentary “Screenagers” to all eighth- to 12th-graders earlier this week to provide context for new student-imposed restrictions on cellphones at St. Anne’s’ Upper School.

Parents and members of the public watched the film Thursday at the Upper School’s Greenway Rise Auditorium. The documentary was followed by a question-and-answer session with Rob Atherton, a cybersecurity professional, and Dr. Paige Perriello, a Charlottesville pediatrician.

Charlottesville High School hosted a screening of the documentary last fall.

In “Screenagers,” Seattle physician and filmmaker Dr. Delaney Ruston delves into research suggesting that excessive screen time can negatively affect brain development, learning and personal growth.

Ruston also interviews families struggling with a child’s “addiction” to video games and chronicles parenting challenges she faced after giving her 13-year-old daughter an iPhone.

Ruston and her daughter, Tessa, ultimately signed a “screen-time contract.” Tessa agreed to not use her phone at mealtime or after she goes to bed, while Ruston promised to be mindful of her time spent on her laptop.

Ruston and the experts she interviewed for the film shared concerns about how girls today use so-cial media, judging themselves and others by their physical appearance and the number of “likes” their photos receive on Instagram.

The documentary also investigates violent video games that are more popular among boys. While some studies have shown that playing violent games can induce aggressive behaviors in some chil-dren, their influence on violent crime is still disputed.

“Screenagers” briefly looks at “one-to-one” device initiatives in public schools, which give students personal computers to take home. The Albemarle County and Charlottesville school divisions both assign Chromebooks to most students.

A University of Washington study found that students who gained access to a home computer between fifth and eighth grades subsequently showed persistent declines in reading and math test scores. The greatest declines were among students from low-income families.

Jacob Vigdor, one of the authors of the study, said in the film that his research suggests that adult guidance is necessary for computers to be an effective educational tool at home.

At the conclusion of the film, Atherton distributed a list of internet safety tips to members of the audience. He said families could benefit from cybersecurity products and strategies that many businesses have adopted.

“Allowing your kids to access all of this connectivity without some knowledge of how to use it safely … should be scarier than handing your car keys to a 16-year-old,” he said.

“[Kids] really want to have this guidance,” Perriello said. “It’s really what they are looking for.”

Atherton and Perriello were joined on stage by Ev Chapman and Junho Moon, two seniors who served on a committee of students that created the new cellphone policy for St. Anne’s’ Upper School.

“A lot of students actually yearn to not be on their phones,” Chapman said. “But once one person does it, everyone follows.”

Chapman said St. Anne’s students clamored for cellphone restrictions when they noticed that common spaces at the school were becoming dismally quiet.

“People weren’t socializing,” Chapman said. “They were sitting in these beautiful spaces that STAB has built for us, just looking at their phones.”

The new policy bans the use of phones inside school buildings. Students may use their phones freely if they go outdoors.

“It forces students to think twice about whether they really have to check a Facebook notification,” said Moon.

Moon said that requiring students to hand in their phones at the beginning of the school day was also a popular idea. However, he said the committee decided that it would be better for students to have the option to carry their phones and learn how to use them responsibly.

Moon said there was a sense of urgency to create the cellphone policy for future St. Anne’s students, who may be less likely to question the constant presence of smartphones in their daily lives.

“We could be the last generation of students to have this conversation,” he said.

“For many kids, their phone is almost like a part of their body,” Moon said. “They get anxious when it’s not in their pocket. They imagine buzzing that isn’t there … It’s like a phantom limb.”

Perriello praised the St. Anne’s cellphone committee for using “positive peer pressure” to limit phone usage at the school.

“They have started something brilliant,” she said.