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At Medford High, teens talk about being hung up on phones

Graeme Bagley, 14, who attends Andrews Middle School, checks out his phone before watching “Screenagers.” Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Medford High School junior Nick Seafidi has known for a while that he’s attached to his phone.

“In the morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is check my phone,” the 17-year-old said. “That’s kind of freaky, isn’t it? Like, that’s not natural.”

Seafidi is not alone. In a survey conducted in 2015, Common Sense Media found teens ages 13 to 18 spent nearly 9 hours a day looking at some sort of screen, including posting on sites such as Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook. More than 4 hours a day was spent hooked to mobile devices, primarily cellphones (2 hours and 42 minutes).


For tweens — ages 8 to 12 — it was almost 6 hours a day of screen time, 2 hours and 21 minutes of it on a mobile device, according to the survey.

Recently, Medford High held a weeklong event called Screenagers Week, named for the documentary created by Seattle physician and filmmaker Delaney Ruston. The film explores the impact of cellphones, social media, and video games on a generation that grew up in a digital world. It tells the story of Ruston’s own family — including a Snapchat-obsessed daughter and video-gaming son — and interviews with experts and families dealing with the side effects of screen use.

The movie presents information on how young people who rely heavily on screens can have problems with focus, social awkwardness, and conflict with their parents over how much they use their devices.

Medford High headmaster John Perella said during the week students spent about an hour each day in their homeroom classes watching the movie and discussing their reactions in smaller groups. Time also was spent on the high school’s updated cellphone policy, which allows students to use their phones between classes and at lunch, replacing a stricter ban previously in place.


“We want to open the dialogue with the students, instead of just saying, ‘These are the rules,’ ” Perella said of the policy change.

Elisabetta Daneu, a Medford High social studies teacher, doesn’t allow phones in her classroom. She has pouches hanging on a wall where students deposit them at the beginning of class. Rarely do her students complain; some have told her it helps them focus.

Haley Cuff, 17, said it didn’t make a big difference to her whether her phone was in a pouch on the wall or in her pocket. She tries not to use it in class so she can pay attention, reserving herself to the occasional peek at her locked screen notifications.

“There are times when I can’t check my phone, and I think, ‘Oh, what if someone is trying to talk to me?’ ” Cuff said. “And sometimes I check it real quick randomly and I have like 10 Snapchats from one person. Then I get stressed out.”

A study published in November by the Association for Psychological Science found that adolescent depression symptoms had increased in recent years, particularly among girls. The teens in the study who spent more time online were more likely to report mental health issues than those who spent more time away from online, participating instead in social activities such as sports or drama, the report said.

Cuff considers herself confident, but sometimes she’ll feel down after a selfie on Instagram doesn’t get the likes or comments she expects. She also gets disheartened by the perfect lives projected by the people she follows on social media. She’ll compare her curly hair and inexperience with makeup with sleek Instagrammers like Kylie Jenner.


“I have looked in the mirror a few times and asked myself, ‘Why don’t I look like these people online?’ ” Cuff said.

David Welch, 18, said between school and sports practices, he doesn’t have much room in his life for screen time. Hockey and baseball prevented him from ever becoming interested in the video games that often dominate the free time of boys his age.

Instead, Welch uses his phone for just two things: communicating with friends and doing schoolwork.

“When I get an assignment in class, instead of using an agenda book, I just right away go to Reminders,” Welch said, referring to the iPhone app. Welch said he also likes to make to-do lists within Apple’s Notes app.

Doreen Arcus, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said a major pull of screens is how instantaneously gratifying they are.

“Think about what you do when you get on the Internet: You put in some words and it responds to you,” Arcus said.

When Arcus’s son was a teen almost 15 years ago, near the dawn of the cellphone age, he had trouble putting down the phone.

“Whenever these new things come out there’s excitement to get on it,” Arcus said. “There’s all sorts of things pulling kids to social media.”


She said that just as kids learn to regulate other behaviors, they need to learn to regulate screen use. Arcus said that comes when rules make clear when screen use is appropriate: not at the dinner table, and not instead of real-life interaction or activity.

Medford High opened Screenagers Week to younger students and the greater community by showing the documentary followed by a discussion. Frank O’Leary, a parent of an Andrews Middle School student, said he thinks these discussions are much needed in the lower grades. His son, Conor, 11, watched the film with him.

“In my friend group, only one person has a smartphone. Most of my friends have ‘dumb phones’ like me,” Conor said, referring to his basic phone.

Erin Diskin, 16, sounded wise beyond her years when she talked about the effects of screen use.

“I think a lot about the younger kids that are going to be making up our workforce,” she said. “Think about the kids that were born in 2017 . . . what’s going to happen to them? We really don’t know how it affects us.”

Evelyn Natale, 13, with her parents, Paul and Melissa, before the film and discussion. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Laura Elyse King can be reached at