Jon Hyatt’s documentary doesn’t exactly go out on a limb by positing that we’re becoming ever more addicted to technology. After all, has anyone not had the experience of walking down a city street and trying to avoid bumping into seemingly every pedestrian staring down at their phone instead of looking where they’re going? Still, Screened Out delivers a convincingly cautionary argument that we’re all becoming zombies forgoing human relationships and experiences in favor of our ubiquitous devices.
The filmmaker takes the increasingly common approach of injecting himself into his material, beginning the documentary with a personal account of his own slavish addiction to his devices. Hyatt contrasts home movies featuring scenes of him playing happily as a child with his current state, in which he can barely tear himself away from his screen. His wife and three young children are similarly afflicted, prompting him to make the decision that they should all terminate their social media accounts. Needless to say, the transition doesn’t go smoothly. “I felt like I was shutting off a part of myself,” Hyatt anguishes, although he later rejoices about starting to read fiction again for the first time in years.
Delivers an important message, if you can tear yourself away from your phone long enough to absorb it.
Rather than concentrate on this experiment, however, the film adopts a standard talking-heads style, in which an array of experts, including authors, academics and educators, testify about the pernicious effects of our growing addiction to technology and the nefarious ways in which technology companies keep us in their thrall. One psychologist explains how social media delivers “intermittent rewards,” which he describes as “the most powerful motivator on the planet.” It’s the same concept that explains why people play slot machines for hours on end, whether they win or lose.
Beyond this, other disturbing facts and figures are presented, such as a study that determined that the average attention span has dropped from 12 to eight seconds since the mobile revolution began. Sadly, a typical goldfish has a longer attention span.
None of this was random, as illustrated by comments from former Facebook president Sean Parker. In footage from a public appearance, he explains that social media was designed to provide “a little dopamine hit once in a while” for the purpose of entrapping users in “a social validation feedback loop.” That loop has become so insidious that there are now numerous technology addiction treatment centers, such as reSTART in Washington state, which promises to help patients to “Limit your device, not your life.”
The doc is most effective, and thought-provoking, in its examination of technology addiction’s effect on children. A study conducted by Common Sense Media found that teenagers spend between six to nine hours daily online or playing video games. The most moving onscreen testimonials are delivered by young people, including a 13-year-old girl who recounts how she nearly committed suicide because of the unhappiness she felt comparing her life to people she encountered on Instagram.
Screened Out never manages to transcend the visual limits of its subject matter, despite its occasional use of whimsical animation to make its points. The procession of talking heads, most of whom are making the same argument, eventually proves tedious despite the doc’s relatively brief running time. And the constant images of people staring at their phones, tablets and computers is enough to make you want to take out your own electronic device for distraction. For all its good intentions, the film ironically winds up testing our already compromised attention spans.
Distributor: Dark Star Pictures (Available on VOD)
Director-editor: Jon Hyatt
Producers: Jon Hyatt, Karina Rotenstein
Executive producers: Jon Hyatt, Michael Hyatt, Richard Hyatt, Naresh Bangia
Director of photography: Bruce William Harper