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.