Like a helpful neighbor who comes tapping at the window to calmly inform you that part of your house is on fire, Screened Out (★★★☆☆) doesn’t want to alarm you, but just wants you to know we’re raising a generation of hardcore screen junkies. Grave, yet somehow breezy, director-editor Jon Hyatt’s thought-provoking documentary starts from the position that just about anyone with a smartphone, tablet, or laptop is spending too much time engaged with their screens to the detriment of their in-person relationships with family and friends.
The film presents a firm argument, buttressed by a persuasive lineup of experts and authors across fields of behavioral science and social media engineering, addiction, and rehab. The pace is brisk, and the tone upbeat — as with the use of simple, effective animation to illuminate B.F. Skinner’s landmark experiments studying reward and reinforcement. Hyatt keeps the arguments fairly one-sided, however, offering practically no rebuttal to his experts’ credible assertions that addictive apps and games have turned our devices into handheld slot machines of social validation. Then again, perhaps there is no refuting former Facebook president Sean Parker’s claim, relayed in footage from a live Axios interview, that getting users hooked was a goal from the beginning.
In making a case against screen addiction, Hyatt’s “Exhibit A” is himself and his family — that is, his wife and their three young boys. Believing that they engage with their devices, in his words, “far too often” throughout the day, he decides to deactivate and delete all his accounts and services, except phone and email. But, while he and the film’s alert cinematographers capture raw moments of tension and togetherness within Hyatt’s family, the movie doesn’t really follow through on documenting the details of their digital detox. Featured as his own lead subject, Hyatt exerts little of the brazenness of the “star documentarian,” and doesn’t exude the vulnerability to fully involve us in his screen addict journey.
More compelling is the general sense that the compulsive behaviors cataloged in the film affect every person in the computerized world. Statistics on the decline of the average human attention span actually are alarming. Concerned parents might see their own children in the behavior of Hyatt’s boys, who both scream for their screen-time and lament the fact that mommy and daddy are bound to their phones nearly every waking hour. The teens who talk to Hyatt about losing sleep and sanity to the time-suck of the bottomless feed might sound like teens you know and love. They might even sound like you, or whoever is quarantining next to you, staring at their timeline.
Spring 2020 indeed is a cruel moment in history to contemplate how much time people spend beholden to their screens and devices. But the air of pandemic crisis adds urgency to the film’s message that society should recognize what author David Sax (The Revenge of Analog) calls one of the most pervasive and potentially dangerous addictions we face. No one in the movie is saying delete all your accounts and destroy all your devices. But certainly, nobody will see Screened Out and think they need to spend more time gazing into the light.
Screened Out is available Tuesday, May 26 via VOD on all digital platforms, and for download on iTunes. Visit www.screenedoutfilm.com.
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