Just because we already sense or know a lot of what is in this film does not mean we won’t benefit from hearing it in such urgent and compelling fashion. You may be aware that email and social media are the first thing you check every morning and the last thing you check at night. You may know how much time it has taken away from what used to occupy your time. You may sense that the feeling of connection you get from seeing that someone liked your tweet about the first concert you attended or favorited your Instagram picture of a sandwich is not of the same quality as, say, an actual in-person conversation.
As though self-conscious about employing the very tricks it is exposing, the just-over-an-hour “Screened Out” maintains a very traditional structure, mostly a series of experts with a lot of dire statistics and conclusions and use of the term “addiction.” There is also a too-brief “Super Size Me“-style segment, or, rather “Un-Super Size Me,” as writer/director John Hyatt goes cold turkey and deletes his social media accounts, while his wife decides to keep them but cut back, and screens are banned for their sons except on weekends.
“I look at it all the time,” Hyatt confesses. “It pulls me away from my work, my children, and my relationships.” The entertainment, the comfort, the approval, the sense of connection we used to find in a variety of places and people and media are now all together in one device handily at hand 24/7. We do not realize that the entertainment, comfort, approval, and connection we get from it is synthetic, explicitly designed to trigger the same neurochemical bursts we get from the real thing.
As for all of those “free” social media apps? Say it with me: if you’re not the customer, you are the product. While you’re determining which “Game of Thrones” character you are, switching your status from “it’s complicated” to “engaged” or clicking “wow” on the post about politics of someone you have not seen since high school, you are giving away pieces of yourself to Facebook which it is selling to advertisers. Facebook visionary Sean Parker is featured in the film explaining that their goal was “to consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible,” exploiting a vulnerability of human psychology. Or, as one of the on-screen experts puts it, “Companies are doing everything they can to short circuit free will and make us forget we ever had it in the first place.”