In Real Life is one of the oldest internet acronyms, IRL, used to denote everything that happens away from the internet. Yet as this documentary shows, for young people growing up now that really might not be much, as the internet and phone technology has taken over communication and friendship at speed. I’m 30 and my smartphone rarely leaves my side, but my job also involves supporting young people online, so this documentary was a must-see. In parts terrifying, but also at times warm and sweet, I feel like it should be a must-watch for parents and youth workers alike!
It opens with Ryan, a 15 year old who talks frankly about his addiction to porn, taking the director Beeban Kidron through his favourite site and explaining MILFs, BBWs, cream pies along the way. His views of women have been shaped by this endless variety of choice and when with friends he talks with bravado, running around London approaching/harassing women as though each is a part of a game, before admitting in private he is scared about whether a relationship will ever live up to his expectations.
Initially I felt like the idea of addiction was overblown, a typically modern over-exaggeration. However when she spoke to Tobin, 19, whose life was gaming since he’d dropped out of University, and asked him to read out a definition of addiction his eyes suggested a reassessment of his own behaviour, spending 7+ hours a day online and struggling with any task that didn’t offer instant gratification. With research seeming to back up the idea of addiction, maybe it’s not so far-fetched.
The parents of a young man who committed suicide after online threats of violence are also shown, with their confusion and pain plain to see. Similarly awful is a young woman, Page, 15, in shadow recounting accepting gang rape and turning to prostitution in order to get back her stolen phone, as her attachment to the object was so important. Yet when Beeban spoke to her about her friends and contacts she explained that it wasn’t even about those 60 contacts as humans, any contacts would do, she just wanted someone to talk to.
As this suggests in each case it felt like there were wider social issues intersecting with technology for each young person which also deserved exploration, but the film’s focus on the impact of the internet was still compelling. Thankfully rather than drawing generalised conclusions from these individual case studies it uses them to underpin an exploration of what it means to be never alone, to be connected to the internet 24/7. Through the use of many experts and talking heads the film considers the impact of internet connectivity on individuals and wider society. What does this do to cognition, understanding of friendships and understanding of self? This also leads the film to the impact of huge commercial corporations and not only the data and information they hold but also their continual micro-testing and adjustment to make each site more addictive and entrancing.
Beeban also has a bit of an obsession with wires, following fibre-optic cables underground constantly, touring server farms and asking “so where is ‘the cloud’?”. By the third time the question had been asked I wanted to chuckle but I can also see that it has a purpose for a lot of people who don’t consider or understand where all their information goes and is stored. In a sense this was a way of explaining what the internet is in real life, and the juxtaposition of recognising data is travelling around underneath life above ground worked really well visually.
The film is not anti-technology and this nationwide screening event was a testament to that. The film was screened at the same time in cinemas across the country (including QUAD, where I saw it), with a Q&A led by Jon Snow in Brixton transmitted by satellite to the participating cinemas immediately afterwards. I love a bit of conversation and debate after a film, but having that happen with the director, a participant from the film, opinionated journalists and the dry cynicism of Jon Snow added a lot to the screening and I’d love to see it happen more often.
The participant on the panel, Tom, also offered a warmer side to the possibilities of the internet. A bi teenager living in Morecambe, he met his boyfriend online and the film charts his journey to meet him, texting nervously on his phone the whole way. The moment where they meet and the giant hug they share is a moment of light relief, as well as a reminder of the positive impact of the internet on young people who need a connection they can’t find anywhere else. It was very sweet to hear via the Q&A that the two are still together nine months later.
The Q&A also gave more insight into how and why Beeban had made the film, with a wide background in British film this seemed like a very personal project. It was led from her desire to understand young people’s perspectives, she wanted to understand what it was like to be ‘on’ 24/7. As above, she resented the idea that asking these questions was anti-technology, rather she wanted to understand the values within huge internet companies, and why as a society we have rules about cigarettes, alcohol, films and games but not the internet; is there any other industry in which we would accept such an abdication of a duty of care?
These were important questions, and the film challenges naive utopian values of free information and connection which founded the internet, which have since been overwhelmed by mainsteam capitalism and corporations. As Jon Snow put it, if we can’t find a way to regulate the banks then how can we expect to regulate the internet?!
In this sense, whilst the film may not offer any real answers it certainly poses a lot of questions and is well worth seeking out.