Screened Out (Documentary Review)

No matter who you are, you will find something relatable and alarming about the new documentary Screened Out. Smartphone addiction has been called a more dire threat to Americans than obesity, and in his new work, Writer/Director Jon Hyatt enlists the help of numerous experts and reflects on his own family experience to take a critical look at how much time we spend on our screens. Released on May 26th in the USA via Dark Star Pictures and on June 1st in the UK via The Movie Partnership, chances are whoever watches will be surprised how far into this modern addiction they have slid without realizing.

The main question Hyatt drives at throughout is why. Why did this technology that was originally a more convenient method of personal communication become vices that we spend a significant portion of our lives on? Somewhere along the way they became virtual extensions of ourselves that provide an outlet for instant gratification whether we are at work, home, on public transportation, in bed, or almost anywhere else. The answer, according to Hyatt and several experts, is that it is by design. 

Our brains are chemically manipulated several ways through the constant flow of information we are bombarded with while online. The lion’s share of the critique, of course, is towards social media. All the popular social media apps – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others – are designed to keep us coming back again and again for small nuggets of gratification in the form of likes, comments, and shares. The same way a drug addict’s brain is stimulated by their vice of choice is the same effect these virtual rewards affect ours – by pulling the dopamine lever and hoping for the fix. And if you don’t know what dopamine is, you will learn a lot about it in Screened Out. 

One of the experts featured is former Facebook President Sean Parker. He points out that the apps are free because the users are not customers; they are the product. If you use social media you will know that targeted advertisements based on your history of associations, likes, comments, and shares, which all create a digital profile of you for third party companies to exploit. The more one participates, the more refined that profile becomes, and the products keep coming back for the same reasons any addict does, only the effects on ourselves are much less visible.

Where the effects can be seen most poignantly is how personal relationships are strained, as shown with Hyatt’s own family dynamics and young teenagers of today who are the first generation to spend their formative years fully immersed in social media. Hyatt’s children are very young, but even at their age have trouble putting down their iPads, and he and his wife have to strictly monitor their own use because it interferes with their ability to be proper parents as they see it. Teenagers are among the most vulnerable, and having a digital extension of yourself that is rife for bullying and manipulation at that age may correlate to increased rates of depression and other mental illnesses in recent years.

Screened Out may seem like it is full of information that many of us intuitively know just by existing with social media in our lives, but it does provide a deeper look into the mechanics of what has become a vital part of everyday life. There is definitely room for counter arguments in another feature, however, this is a very new phenomenon that users and experts are learning about as it goes along. It clocks in at a quick 70 minutes, which is good considering the subject matter.

However, some of its claims are dubious and it does slide a little too far into hyperbole at some points. For example, when Parker says social media companies are trying to “short circuit free will and make us forget we ever had it in the first place.” That in mind, Screened Out is informative and engaging, and could be a catalyst for some much needed self-reflection on how we use our time. For these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives Screened Out 3.5 out of 5 stars. 

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