InRealLife: a virtual disappointment

A new film is a missed opportunity to challenge the climate of anxiety about our use of the internet.

Beeban Kidron’s documentary film, InRealLife, asks whether we are outsourcing our children to the internet. To her credit, the film avoids the overt sensationalism of most accounts of teenagers and the internet. We also get to hear teenagers, to some extent, speaking for themselves alongside the views of the obligatory experts. To this extent, it is an interesting and restrained work. But ultimately, the film offers a fairly conventional view of the dangers of the internet.

As with all films, the framing, editing and soundtrack ‘directs’ our attention and interpretation in less obvious ways than what is actually said. For example, Kidron includes an interview with a researcher from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who proposes a more optimistic view about the internet than is common today: that problems and failures are necessary for human development and that, if left alone, both social and behavioural norms and ‘the net itself’ will develop robustness and resilience. He points out that our drive to overprotect young people is more likely to create insanity than anything they could view online.

These are ideas that present an opportunity to interrogate some fundamental contemporary assumptions about the internet. Unfortunately, Kidron leaves this single potential source of dissent undeveloped. Instead, she chooses to juxtapose it with an interview with the parents of Thomas, a 14-year-old boy who killed himself. No one explicitly claims his death was due to ‘cyber-bullying’, but the insertion of text messages, and the absence of any different interpretation, points to this preferred reading. The emotional anguish of bereaved parents is posited as a legitimate riposte to the mildly dissenting academic. The effect is to undercut the claims of the MIT researcher rather than encourage open debate and deeper thinking.

Ultimately, Kidron’s film draws upon, and affirms, two contemporary anti-humanist assumptions. The first is that young people are excessively vulnerable. The second is that the internet is a ‘big business’ and, like all big businesses, can only make profits through various nefarious means. Presenting de-contextualised information such as ‘40 per cent of teenagers spend more time online, than real time, with friends’, or that US security agencies made ‘64,000 data requests in the year running up to June 2012’, tells us very little about the contemporary cultural meaning of such information. So viewers are likely to try and make sense of the film by drawing on the existing way that the internet is understood: objects and organisations are all-powerful and ordinary people, especially teenagers, are powerless.

In between the talking heads, Kidron shows us location shots of dark tunnels with menacing music, or shots of huge, peopleless data centres – like sets from a dystopian science-fiction programme. These images seem to suggest that we should be fearful about the internet. Yet these scenes could have been used in a different way: the very fact that we are able to create cables and place them underground or in the depths of the ocean is something to marvel at rather than fear. Indeed, the difficulty cultural and political elites have in being able to value scientific and technological progress is a far more important problem than the way teenagers use their electronic devices.

There is also a running contradiction in what the film seems to want us to think about young people’s use of the internet and the reality evinced by the teenagers themselves. For example, two young lads are interviewed in the film about their use and enjoyment of online pornography. To me, they seemed like normal teenage boys – a bit gauche and full of bravado. When asked an inane and intrusive question like ‘What do you think of those tits?’ one of them replies after slight hesitation ‘Yeah that’s what I’d go for’. I think we were meant to be vaguely horrified/disturbed when he goes on to say he thought of porn actresses when with his girlfriend and, if she failed to ‘match up’, he just goes on to the next one. Personally, I found it hard to stop laughing at this point. He seemed like a presentable enough youth but the idea that there is a line of girls queuing for his favours is surely the stuff of teenage (boy) daydreams.

A little later, he spoke touchingly of the ‘problems of love’ in that he rarely feels a connection with the girl he’s with, or that if he sleeps with a girl he likes, she’s then labelled a slag. Watching online pornography clearly has not damaged either his capacity for empathy or his ability to be fairly articulate about typically adolescent feelings that, by their nature, are confusing and contradictory. Interestingly, he said that the only time he feels he can be private is with his laptop in the bathroom watching porn.

Then there’s the ex-Oxbridge student who plays a lot of computer games. Despite his glowing academic qualifications he was thrown out of Oxford because he didn’t think he had to work hard, and he only realized this too late. He admits he probably spends too much time gaming but he says it’s not destroying his life in the way that taking drugs might. Moreover, it is a way for him to avoid doing things he doesn’t want to, even if they may be useful. As the idea of doing only what interests you personally is now the bedrock of most Western education systems, I don’t think its widespread adoption by young people can be attributed to computer games.

These interviews are really the most interesting parts of the film: they raise interesting questions about how modern society turns ordinary variations in personality, like shyness, into psychological disorders, or how the constant demand for transparency undermines privacy.

Unfortunately, such questions are ignored in the film. In real life, the kids are (mainly) alright, as is unintentionally shown throughout the film; nor is there a conspiratorial internet ‘dark underbelly’ as the film implies. Indeed, there is much to be welcomed about the internet. The last scenes feature a teenager who had met his first boyfriend online, and had finally met him in real life. They show that giving and requiring affection and intimacy are not incompatible with doing an awful lot of texting.

In a climate where often adults seem to have problems distinguishing fiction from reality, I think a film showing that adults’ fears are not always matched by reality would be a very refreshing film to watch. InRealLife had the potential to be such a film, but unfortunately it fails to fulfil its promise of subversion.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

InRealLife is in UK cinemas from today. View the trailer:

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