Everybody’s got a story of when we first recognized the addiction — usually other people’s and not our own.
A concert where phone alerts interrupted the music, church, classrooms overrun with teens unable to keep the screen out of sight.
For me, it was a Toronto Film Festival in about 2002. I’d be in previews of movies destined to open around the world over the next few months, screenings packed with industry officials and filmmakers, and you could barely focus on the action on screen without this sea of tiny blue-greenish screens.
“Crack-berries,” we called them. They’re remembered, even today, in Jon Hyatt’s new documentary, “Screened Out,” about what some medical experts and academics are loathed to call an “addiction” (“compulsion,” a few call it) but ALL agree is a rising social ill of our age.
Hyatt’s legion of experts, advocates, pediatricians and others fret over how “screens” are eating up everybody’s time, but most especially our children’s. “Neglectful” distracted parents can’t bother to watch Missy’s swim lesson or focus on Junior on the swing-set — checking that screen.
And the kids? They are literally “rewiring your children” (Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, teen addiction expert) through the engineered dopamine rush of cell-phone apps purpose-built to hook us with “the bottomless feeds” of new thoughts, information, “likes” and the like, and video games “that go on forever.”
In just a few years, first world cultures (at least in this hemisphere) have seen attention spans — our ability to focus without having a gun held to our heads — have shrunk from 12 seconds to eight seconds.
A handful of Facebook alumni — higher ups such as Sean Parker — have sounded the alarm in public appearances (Hyatt gets no one from the industry on camera himself).
Dr. Hilarie Cash of the screen-addiction center Restart in Seattle (clever, clever name) declares “If they hold our attention, they can sell us stuff.” So the Twitters, Facebooks, Instagrams and Snapchats hire behavioral psychologists and others to ensure that each new piece of their “experience” is designed to do just that.
We meet no one who admits to doing this work.
Hyatt’s film starts out as a personal memoir, a voiced-over “Super-Size Me” about trying to get hold of his own addiction and convince his wife to limit or eliminate screen usage by their small children.
After all, the cream of Silicon Valley — where most of this addictive-app innovation is achieved — send their kids to the pricey Waldorf of Peninsula School, where screen access is severely limited, an ethos the educators send home to the tech titans whose little darlings they’re turning into the Next Elite.
But this personal memoir idea and home enforcement thing is played down as Hyatt, hitherto a writer and director of short films, loses himself in his experts.
He talks to teens and gets some revealing admissions about the Fortnite addicts in their ranks, the ways screens are eating up their study (concentration) time and their sleep.
The advocates he interviews are from Common Sense Media and Screenstrong–Families Managing Media, and echo what the academics and medical professionals say about what this removal from direct social interaction is doing to our empathy and ability to connect, relate and understand others.
Are we headed into a dark age when everybody is “on the spectrum,” thanks not to a genetic condition but to all the cunning manipulation by companies with the resources that billions of subscribers and the advertisers that come with that audience have at their disposal?
The jury’s out on that, but not on the growing concern “Screened Out” scratches the surface of. It may feel one-sided, cursory or incomplete, lacking focus (put the phone back down, Hyatt) and myopic. But it lays out the parameters of the problem, the “social validation feedback loop” of effort, attention and “rewards” that these successful cell phone app businesses manipulate in ways that are insidious and destructive to society.
And “myopic refers to the cross section of America Hyatt devotes his film to. Either there are no children and parents of color concerned with this, and no Black experts in the field, or Hyatt neglects to talk with them. Maybe 100 voices, and scores more faces, and the only Black people in this are models — illustrative faces in playgrounds or what have you.
I sense a wide-open field (Minority Communities and Social Media Use and Addiction) for enterprising researchers to dive into. And if there already are members of Latin and African American communities researching that, maybe Hyatt will figure out a little “inclusion” makes a universal concern seem actually, you know, universal.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Jon Hyatt, Melanie Hempe, Nir Eyal, Nicholas Kardaras, Alex Pang, Jean Twenge, Hilarie Cash, Michael Rich and Sid Bolton
Credits: Written and directed by Jon Hyatt. A Dark Star release.
Running time: 1:11