Film & TV Muse

Taking on the Smartphone Generation

BAFTA winning director and Lords peer Beeban Kidron wants to start a conversation about the internet, as she explains to James Tyas.

Archive This article is from our archive and might not display correctly. Download PDF
inreallife2Novelist Jonathan Franzen wrote in his lengthy essay, provocatively entitled 'what's wrong with the modern world' (published in the Guardian earlier this month), that 'with technoconsumerism, a humanist rhetoric of "empowerment" and "creativity" and "freedom" and "connection" and "democracy" abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own development logic, and it's far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people's worst impulses, than the newspapers ever were.'

This, and a clip of comedian Louis C.K., currently doing the rounds on Twitter, talking about how he won't allow his daughters to have smartphones because they don't allow children to develop empathy, runs along similar lines to the argument that British director Beeban Kidron puts forward in her latest documentary InRealLife.

It appears that an ideological sea change about the internet and its implications, for teens in particular, is rapidly gathering momentum. But why is it only now that people are beginning to ask questions? Kidron believes that, for her generation ("the generation still writing in the papers"), "the internet was going to be this huge liberatory technology. That was the idea of the internet. So it's only now that we see that it might have been hijacked a bit, that we say 'hang on a minute. We were promised something different.' And we could have something different, so we all start shouting and it does take time, but it has been very very rapid. It's recent. It's new."

"The funny thing about being a filmmaker is that you ask questions of yourself every day but there are some questions with which you suddenly get a tingle in your tummy and think 'I need to know the answer,'" she explains. The question that prompted her to make InRealLife came when she realised that she was never in the presence of a teenager who wasn't tapping away at a smartphone. "They talk and look down at the phone. They text and look up from the phone. It was developing as a third limb and I just wondered 'does this make a difference?

InRealLife focusses on various case studies of teenagers and their, often unhealthy, relationships with the internet and how it is modifying their behaviour and values. One particularly distressing story comes from a young girl whose intractable obsession with her BlackBerry forced her to perform sexual acts on a gang of boys in order to retrieve it from them. Another centres around Tobin, an former Oxford Student who was expelled due to his addiction to online gaming. Kidron argues that the accounts of those featured in the film aren't outliers: they represent widespread issues that affect an entire generation of adolescents.

I ask Kidron how she elicited such candid testimony from her teenage subjects (most of whom she found by heading out onto the street with her camera), particularly Ryan, who spoke about his ritualistic daily viewing or pornography. "It was just a very real thing for him and he was not ashamed and I think the fact that he was not ashamed of looking at porn was very useful because there are hundreds of thousands of kids looking at porn. Just because he talks about it doesn't make him singular. What makes him singular is the way that he talks about it."

Indeed, later in the film Ryan speaks, with astonishing insight, about the harmful effect watching pornography had on how he perceives women. "I think what's interesting about his self reflective moment at the end when he sort of analyses it is that, without the film, he possibly would not have said that. That is to say, I didn't put the words in his mouth," she stresses. "That was clearly what he thought. But it was the sheer act of sitting, doing nothing, thinking and reflecting [that allowed him to say that]. I suppose, in a way, that it is a metaphor for the whole film: if you don't, as a young person, have time to sit and reflect, you may never deeply think about your own intimacies and choices because you are always on to the next little beep or interruption."

Despite an aversion to pornography ("I don't like its violence or its male gaze"), Kidron is at pains not to portrayed as a Mary Whitehouse-esque, won't-somebody-please-think-of-the-children concerned parent: "I'm not against sex, or finding out about sex, or using the internet to find out about sex. I'm just very keen that we look at a much, much bigger picture of how the internet is effecting young people's sense of self and sense of intimacy."

She also baulks at certain critics interpretation of her film as a 'shock-doc' : "I think people who are shocked aren't looking very closely around them. We have had a huge number of teenagers come and see this film. They aren't shocked. They aren't shocked at all."

She also pays little heed to those critics who have insinuated that the director of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason making a serious documentary seems like a mismatch. "To be honest, you know, those people should do their research a little bit more carefully because, of course, as well as Bridget Jones's, since 1982 I have been making documentaries about serious subjects." For Kidron, this highlights another problem concerning our constant connectivity: "although its fantastic that everyone has access to the airwaves, I suggest those people who take the privilege of access to the airwaves treat it seriously. I don't care what people say about me. I just want them to think about the issue."

I suggest that InRealLife raises many intriguing issues but doesn't appear to have an overarching thesis. "That's interesting," she says. "I think it does have a thesis. The thesis is that we have to reconsider the net as a neutral space. We have to consider the collateral damage of the great desire for profit. But in terms of giving you a list of things to do, people to write to, me being angry at the end like Michael Moore - it doesn't have that thing stylistically."

But what were her aims in making this film? "I wanted to start a conversation. There are many people that need to be involved in that conversation. And as a documentarian, I speak up for people and give them the opportunity to get issues on the table but I don't speak on behalf of anyone. That is a really important difference for me."

Kidron tells me that her film has definitely touched a nerve. "I've had messages from people in parliament who want to look at this. I've had messages from schools and parents and every screening I've been to, a whole bunch of teenagers have said 'you know what, we're actually really impressed by Facebook but we no longer have tools to communicate outside of that. What do you suggest we do?' And as far as I'm concerned, this film is a cultural intervention and making people think and making people talk and making people desire things that they may have to go on an organize themselves is really what my job is."

I suggest that a pessimist might argue that InRealLife isn't so much about the medium of the internet but about capitalism. "And I would say that is very astute (laughs)." But, for that reason, it seems there is little young people can do to affect change. "Hang on a minute," she interrupts. "You guys are the next generation. You want to inherit the world. You know that global capital is leaving you with the melting icecaps and your means of expression is being reduced to 140 characters. But you have to do that willingly is what I say. If we decide that global capitalism, global debt, and lack of respect for the planet, young people growing up and everything from sex onwards is what we want; fine. But I'm going down shouting."

Kidron's desire to question the new normal is infectious and it's telling that companies such as Facebook and Google refused to be interviewed for this film. Kidron tells me that, "Its just inevitable that we're going to look at this and say 'ooh, hang on, these guys can't just make billions of pounds of profit without making it a little bit safer and taking a bit more care. Coca Cola can't put any old thing in their mixture, we've stopped putting asbestos in our insulation and when there's a lot of cars on the road we put in a traffic system." She then poses the question, "Can you think of any other area of life where you deliver a service or a product to the consumer where you don't have a duty of care?" Well. Can you? M

You Might Also Like...

Leave a comment

Your name from your Google account will be published alongside the comment, and your name, email address and IP address will be stored in our database to help us combat spam. Comments from outside the university require moderator approval to reduce spam, but Nouse accepts no responsibility for reviewing content comments on our site

Disclaimer: this page is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.