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Review: How much screen time is too much? ‘Screened Out’ wonders and wanders

Filmmaker Jon Hyatt monitors his family's screen habits in his documentary about screen addiction, "Screened Out'
Filmmaker Jon Hyatt, right, monitors his family’s screen habits in his documentary about screen addiction, “Screened Out.”
(Dark Star Pictures)

There’s plenty of research demonstrating the deleterious affects of spending too much time on phones, computers and other digital devices. Ironically, a new documentary about screen addiction suffers from its own short-attention span issues.

“Screened Out,” written, directed, edited and coproduced by, and starring Jon Hyatt, addresses a topic of deepening concern in our increasingly digital age — probably even more so during quarantine. How much is too much? Is there permanent damage being done to our brains, especially those of our kids? Since it’s not an option for most of us to divorce our phones, can we arrive at more balanced relationships, maybe through counseling?

The most compelling parts of the doc touch on the science behind all this — the “dopamine reward pathway” and how tech companies actively attempt to rewire our brains, taking advantage of cravings for “intermittent rewards.” These aren’t new ideas, of course, though they will probably prove jarring for those wondering if they or their kids are spending too much time on screens and why.

Beyond that, however, the film drifts from grown-up to kid problems with mostly anecdotal evidence but very little science to back it up. It tries to cover too much ground in 71 minutes without going deeply into any of the areas it lightly explores.

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'Screened Out'

Not rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 11 minutes
Playing: Available May 26 on VOD

A few folks talk about how good it is to meditate or go outside or, you know, interact directly with humans (this was made before social distancing was a part of our daily lives, natch). That’s not exactly revolutionary, and there’s no follow-up data: Does such behavioral change result in lowered instances of depression or altered brain scans, etc.? Again, there’s plenty of research about this, but the film simply doesn’t investigate it deeply.

The eternal struggle for docs that rely on personal stories to humanize the problem is to balance human-interest storytelling with persuasive fact. The speakers often describe extreme situations — letting kids use screens unchecked, in one case resulting in suicidal ideation — and offer solutions with no proof of their efficacy. That’s not to say that meditation wouldn’t help; it’s to say that the film doesn’t convincingly make the case that it would. Many speakers are unidentified; even those presented as experts aren’t given context beyond naming their organization or published work.

In 2014, when I started to write a book about the need to restrict the amount of time our kids spend on screens, the idea was not a popular one.

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This problem is exacerbated by the filmmaker’s insertion of himself into his documentary — it’s a bit uncomfortable watching him use his young kids as examples, and to see so many shots of him walking down the street and looking at his phone.

Most would probably agree that excessive screen time is a problem of growing seriousness. It’s likely worse right now, with so many people forced to stay indoors and so many parents running out of ideas to keep kids constructively occupied. Perhaps the film’s most useful suggestion is to embrace boredom rather than struggle to fill every moment (also hardly a new idea, but one probably worth repeating).

One wishes “Screened Out” would have delved more deeply, with more focus and intellectual rigor, into proving its points and providing solutions.

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Trailer for the documentary “Screened Out,” about screen addiction.

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