Do you know who you’re talking to? Where does your data go? Have we outsourced our children to the Internet?
These questions are at the heart of InRealLife, a thought-provoking documentary screening at this year's DOXA Documentary Film Festival. In the film, U.K. director Beeban Kidron delves into the way young people are interacting with the Internet and how it’s reshaping their minds and behaviours.
Reached on the phone from London, England, Kidron says she was inspired to make InRealLife after witnessing how passive the young people around her had become.
“It was a lot to do with my own kids and their friends and the kids around me,” says Kidron. “One day I walked into the room—there were half a dozen of them—and they were all looking eyes down at the phone. I just thought, ‘gosh, that’s so incredible, a bunch of teenagers and they’re all looking at their phones’. And they’re communicating with someone because all that tapping is communications. But what does it mean to communicate with things that are not in the room. Once I had that thought I was off.”
In the interview that opens the film, Kidron speaks with two teenage boys about how they use the Internet; unsurprisingly the primary topic is pornography. The duo scroll through a tablet talking about the varieties of porn available, their viewing routines, and how such unlimited access to sexual imagery is impacting their ability to talk to women in real life.
It’s slightly unnerving to hear two kids talking so freely about such an intimate topic, but Kidron isn’t surprised at how forthcoming they are.
“I think it’s just very funny that we think it’s okay for them to say everything online, but actually were a little bit squeamish when it comes to seeing them on the screen,” she notes. “Think about what we have allowed or encouraged or what is routine, all of those words—routine, encouraged, allowed—to go on online. This is a generation of disclosures and it’s part of the culture—you disclose.”
Throughout the film, Kidron tracks a range of young Internet consumers, including one girl who is so addicted to her Blackberry that she trades sexual favours to recover it after it is stolen, a meet-up of YouTube users in Hyde Park that turns into a screaming mob when a vlogging celebrity shows up, and the first real-life encounter between two teenage boys who met and fell for each other entirely online.
She also talks to media theorists, psychologists, game designers, entreprenuers, writers, professors, and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who questions why we are okay with corporations owning our information yet so opposed to the government having it. (“That seems very weird if you think about it for even five minutes,” says Kidron.)
However, the inclusion of a controversial figure like Assange in the documentary raised concerns of its own.
“When I came back with my interview…I turned round to the editor [of the film] and said, ‘do you think people are going to think he’s weird and paranoid?’” Kidron laughs. “But this is before Edward Snowden, so by the time the film comes out, Edward Snowden has spilled the beans and Julian looks, like, kind of suburban in his containment about what this issue is.”
Since the film was released in the U.K. in September 2013, Kidron has become an in-demand speaker in U.K. schools, where she encourages students to become less passive consumers of Internet culture.
“We think that there is this terrible idea that the kids are digital natives… and they know what they’re doing, but all the evidence says that they’re hanging around going ‘where are you, I’m here, can I post my picture?’” she says. “They’re not actually writing wikis, they’re not actually listening to great poets live. They’re not hooked into African villages that just discovered the iPad.”
Kidron continues, “What happens is young kids want to talk about pornography, they want to talk about body image, and they want to talk about feelings of compulsion, about being overwhelmed at the demand to respond is the way that they put it.
“I want to talk about privacy, the quality of the information you receive, whether it’s neutral or commercial or pointed, bringing consciousness to the lack of neutrality in the algorithms. And I want to talk about data and identity and how on the net you get a compressed identity of everything you’ve ever done, whereas in real life you have a moving and shifting identity depending on who and when and how long ago.
“Over the course of 40 or 50 or 60 visits to schools, I developed this absolute passion about changing the conversation with young people.”
The primary way to combat this detrimental cultural shift, Kidron reiterates, is basic Internet education.
“My son said very something beautiful, he goes, you would not send a child out into the street without holding its hand to cross the road.’ So we just need to be holding the hand,” she says. “What that means in digital space is going to be different according to the kid, according to the age, according to the technology that’s being developed, but that principle is something we have to work out.”
Despite her concerns about the way Internet is shaping young minds, Kidron still sees the vast benefits of a world wide web.
“I have to go on record, I love this stuff. I love text, I love email, I love Skype, I think it’s amazing,” she says. “I think that there are some absolutely extraordinary things and it is not true that these things can’t happen if you behave responsibly….when we impose our democratic ideals on the world, it’s to create order and fairness. The Internet is no different. It should be part of our democratic world, it should have order and fairness, and in particular it should be fair to young people.”
InRealLife screens at the Vancity Theatre on May 4 (5:15 p.m.) as part of the 2014 DOXA Documentary Film Festival.