WRITTEN BY DEMPSEY PILLOT.
At a time where social distancing is all the rage, technology has become an essential part of keeping everyone connected. As helpful as the small screens in our pockets may be though, there's a danger in that dependency. At least that's what filmmaker Jon Hyatt believes anyway, and he sets out to explore the consequences of a society increasingly addicted to their black mirrors in his documentary, Screened Out.
The film starts off with Hyatt providing a retrospective of how it was for him growing up without internet or a smartphone. He points out that without those "distractions" children were forced to use their creativity for entertainment. He eventually ponders how much of an impact technology has had on his life, so he decides to partially unplug. He limits his phone usage and deactivates most of his social media accounts. The self-experimentation is very reminiscent of Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me, but it doesn't become the sole focus of the documentary. Instead, as he continues his search for self, he also explores all of the inconspicuous negative effects that screen time is having on this next generation.
On the surface, he acknowledges the social defects it has on individuals. It's interesting to see just how hard it is for this next generation to communicate. While we don't get too much factual data, through interviews with parents, teachers, and teens themselves, it becomes evident that a lot their social skills have been replaced by the usage of memes and emojis. The more Hyatt chips away at the issue, he finds that the sacrifice of social skills is just the beginning, and that the apps embedded on the devices are designed to breed addicts. You find out that likes, follows, subs, and shares are all tools to keep everyone - not just kids - coming back for more.
It should be noted that not many have bothered to explore this frontier that Hyatt seems so concerned about, which is why there isn't much data to show, yet Hyatt and his guests do a fine job at exploring his thesis and strengthening his argument with their own articulate anecdotes and observations. In addition to speaking with parents, teachers, and students, he also speaks to various experts including the CEO of a media company, psychologists, and even former tech addicts, among many others. There's also some shockingly relevant footage taken from an interview with former Facebook President Sean Parker.
Admittedly, the documentary does take a bit of a turn when it starts to delve into the depression that some may suffer at the hands of technology. While that segment does feel a bit out of place, I can't say that it isn't necessary. There's one moment where we meet a 13 year-old girl who tried to kill herself because social media made her feel inadequate. It's sad, but it really drives Hyatt's point home about the large impact that such small devices have on us. One other interesting idea he touches upon is how a parent's use of technology can influence their child's personality. It's actually a major reason for his decision to unplug. Personally, I felt that there was a whole lot more to explore there.
That leads me to what I believe is quite literally the film's only shortcoming. It's too short. Clocking in at just around 70 minutes, it leaves a lot to be desired. While it does cover quite a bit in that small amount of time, I feel like Hyatt could have expounded on some ideas to make it just a bit longer. A part of me also feels like this would make for a brilliant series if it were extended. As I mentioned previously though, I think it's ultimately limited by its own subject matter because it's still a subject that's being studied.
Hyatt may not do anything groundbreaking or controversial with this film, but that doesn't make it less effective. He does, after all, shed light on a widely ignored, yet unavoidable issue. We've become so blinded by technology's benefits that we can't even see its most obvious flaws. Over the past couple of decades we've left something so small become such a large part of our lives, and the more time we spend online, the more we lose touch with our own humanity. Screened Out makes it clear that because of how far we've come, it may never be possible to fully unplug, but that doesn't mean we always have to remain attached too.