Teens and their families often face stress, anxiety, and depression, problems that have been around for generations but are sometimes made worse by modern technology. “Screenagers Next Chapter: Uncovering Skills for Stress Resilience” is a documentary by filmmaker Delaney Ruston, a primary care physician. She opens the film by saying that although she feels confident at work, she still felt lost when dealing with her own daughter’s struggles. Her documentary shows many teens dealing with difficulties, and points teens and their families to proven techniques for managing these challenges. For parents, that can mean validating emotions and not rushing in to try to fix everything. For teens, it can mean learning to talk about emotions, and being mindful of the impact of technology and other things in their lives.
“Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age” was shown at the PAC in May 2017, and focused on how we can help kids navigate the digital world, and “Screenagers Next Chapter” is its sequel. Erin Lambert of the West Tisbury School PTO discovered it in November, and was eager to bring it to the Island. She reached out to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, which helped fund the screening and opened its theater to the students in West Tisbury’s middle school grades. “It’s just as focused on the importance of mental health as it is on social media,” Lambert says of the film. “It helped me, personally, as a mom. It’s great to have powerful stories on things that help our kids.”
I watched “Screenagers Next Chapter” with the school’s sixth, seventh, and eighth grades at the Film Center on a frigid Friday morning. The Film Society’s mission includes using film as a conduit for education, says Richard Paradise, founder and executive director, and they do about six to eight school collaborations every school year. Later this year they’ll show “Harriet” for high school classes studying U.S. history, and “1917” for those whose history classes are covering World War I.
For this film, I sat in the middle of the theater, surrounded by eighth graders. My daughter, who’s in the sixth grade, did not want to sit with me. The students were as quiet and attentive for the film as middle school students can be. As it played, I heard more than one murmur of agreement, and only one derisive snort. At the end of the showing, a couple of the boys behind me told each other they’d been trying to take a nap. (Being tired, along with being stressed and bored, is one of the most common complaints of teenagers. According to the film, 41 percent of teens get less than seven hours of sleep on school nights, and studies show that teens need more than nine hours of sleep a night.)
Identifying feelings can be hard, but the students in the theater were already familiar with the Mood Meter and Meta Moments mentioned in the film. They’re part of RULER, an evidence-based approach for integrating social and emotional learning into schools developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and used from the early elementary grades onward at the West Tisbury School. “School isn’t just reading, writing, arithmetic anymore,” says Graham Houghton, guidance counselor for grades five to eight. Teaching social and emotional skills has become an important part of the curriculum. “Schools want an overarching framework of positive behavioral support and social emotional learning and intelligence,” Houghton says. When students have a shared vocabulary around emotions and social dynamics, that makes it easier to talk about things and find solutions.
After the film, students broke into smaller groups at school to discuss it in breakout sessions. Adults facilitated the discussion, equipped with a discussion guide, but each group had a unique experience. “Some of the feedback I got was very positive, about breaking down the stigma of mental health issues and personal suffering. Students were pretty open about their struggles,” Houghton says.
At the end of the class, he had students write down ways in which the film had changed their thinking. One student said, “I always knew sleep was important, but I didn’t know it was linked to my mental health.” Others said that they appreciated what adults were doing more, both to understand kids’ problems and to help by limiting their phone use. Learning that depression and anxiety are common problems was another lesson — knowing that it’s not so weird can help struggling teens seek help when they need it. Another student said, “I used to think parents could solve my problems away, now I think I should learn to do it myself.”
As a parent, I found a good amount of potentially useful advice in the film, and because my daughter also saw it, we should have a bit more of a shared vocabulary when it comes to discussing these issues in our own household, and that’s definitely a good thing.
For parents and others who missed the initial screening of “Screenagers Next Chapter,” it will be offered at the West Tisbury library again on Saturday, Jan. 25, at 10:30 am, with an opportunity for discussion afterward.