The kids aren’t alright: InRealLife

What price the internet? Director Beeban Kidron discusses her provocative new documentary about teenagers growing up in the digital age.

Samuel Wigley

We’re living in the brave new world of the internet and no-one can take their eyes away – least of all our children. Beeban Kidron’s new documentary InRealLife checks in with the first generation of British teenagers who are growing up having never known a time before smartphones and social media, whose childhoods are defined by status updates, emails and digitised friendships.

While InRealLife incorporates grown-up talking heads (including Julian Assange and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales) to help map out some context, in the main Kidron lets the kids do the talking – with disquieting results. Her most alarming subjects include Ryan, a 15-year-old whose daily fix of hardcore web porn has shaped his expectations with the opposite sex; and Page, a girl of the same age, who admits consenting to sex in order to get back her prized BlackBerry.

Though her career has taken in a number of big-budget feature films, including To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), with Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze, and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004), she’s remained committed to politically-engaged documentary, as well as film education. With Lindsay Mackie, she’s the force behind FILMCLUB, a charity scheme bringing film clubs to schools across the country.

Backed by the BFI Film Fund, InRealLife opens nationwide following its recent world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

InRealLife (2013)

InRealLife (2013)

Why did you first decide to make a film about children and the internet?

The thing about documentary is that you don’t really choose your subjects, they come and grab you out of your bed. I have a lot of teenagers in my life, not only my own and their friends, but also with FILMCLUB and so on. I became aware in my peripheral vision that I had not for many, many months seen one of them without a phone in their hands, without this call of the phone. It wasn’t just that it was an inanimate object, it was them having a relationship with this thing.

One particular day, there were six kids in my kitchen, and I walked in and one was on a game, one was on a computer, and four of them were on a sofa, squished together, all looking at their phones. I realised they weren’t talking, and it started me thinking: is this a generational thing? It’s fine that teenagers don’t want to talk to adults – that’s normal. But is it ok that they don’t talk to each other? Is it fine because they’re talking to someone who you can’t see, but they’re communicating, they’re typing, they’re reading? Or is there something wrong here? And once I’d posed the question, I needed to find out my own answer.

Do you think you found an answer?

I think I answered it to the negative. Which isn’t to say the internet is bad. I’m in the communications business. I’m of that generation – open, free and democratic, get rid of the gatekeepers, broadcast to the world. All of these things the internet said it was going to deliver I absolutely believe in, and there’s no reason why it still can’t do so. That’s not the issue here. The issue is that something that was designed as peer-to-peer and non-hierarchical and on small networks has been hijacked by very purposeful commercial entities and a huge concentration of power. The reason I looked at teenagers is that they’re growing up into that world, without any before. They’re the unadulterated material of what that means, rather than people like me who have a before and after relationship with it all.

InRealLife (2013)

InRealLife (2013)

How did you find your teenage subjects?

Every which way. I often go out on the street with my camera and ask questions. I asked Ryan and his friends: “What’s the best thing about the internet?” And four of them said: “Porn”. And the other one went: “eBay”. So much for all the world’s information on the net! So I phoned him up and started a conversation and ended up in filming him.

With Page, I knew that that sort of thing was going on – particularly around BlackBerry – and I kissed a lot of frogs to try and get access to someone who had a story, because obviously it’s a sensitive thing. I talked to dozens of people, but Page was the one who agreed to go on camera. The others I found through kids’ networks or friends of friends of friends, or I put a tweet out and people would come and say they knew someone I might be interested in.

Ryan is very candid about his internet porn habit and its effect on his perception of women and relationships. Was he concerned about going on camera to admit all this?

I explained very fully what the potential implications were. He’s quite clear this is a new normal. He doesn’t see himself as extreme. What’s worrying to me is how many people from the adult world think that’s extreme. He thinks it’s normal not just because he’s him but because he happens to know dozens of teenagers who are all behaving the same way.

InRealLife (2013)

InRealLife (2013)

When I forced him to stop and think about it, what he says is very clear and very evocative and quite tragic: that he recognises the price he’s paying. But as the film tries to explain, these kids are not entirely in control. Telling a teenager to stop watching porn if they’ve done it from the beginning is like telling a smoker to give up smoking.

The thing that upsets me is the ubiquitous use of reward technology, which uses our evolutionary biology against us. People talk about this dystopian thing and the evil Google and “Are we in 1984?”, and I realised we’re not in 1984 at all. We’re in The Truman Show!

But outside there’s a real world, and that’s very important to recognise because it gives you a lot more hope of sorting it out in ways that are reasonable. When we’ve decided as a society that we have a duty of care to the young, we have to say “Is this ok for them?” And I think the answer’s no.

The huge majority of people who’ve seen it have said, “But I’m like that. What she’s doing there is me when I’m shouting at my kid to go to bed so I can go back to my computer.” Adults recognise their own behaviour in these kids, but I thought by looking at kids – and kids alone – we would see our own responsibilities clearer.

InRealLife (2013)

InRealLife (2013)

The thrust of the film is that companies like Twitter and Facebook should be regulated and consider their responsibilities to the young. Parents seem quite absent from your film.

The parents thing was deliberate. If you look around the world, a lot is said about teenagers. You very rarely hear them speak on their own account. I thought as soon as you put parents in, it’s going to look like a conversation between parents and me. Then it becomes about good parenting, bad parenting. I decided not to do that. I let the teenagers speak on their own behalf, and the experts speak about the wider world.

That’s partly why people are hearing the kids quite so loud and clear. To some extent the parents are the viewers, seeing their world in front of them. The parents who have seen it have found it really helpful, a lot are then taking their 15+ kid to go and see it and have a conversation about some of the things in it.

One of the things I resent is corporations and the government saying parents have to regulate. What a ludicrous idea when there is this humongous world that’s designed to addict our kids. The kids are out there in the world, this bomb’s in their pocket – and what are the parents supposed to do?

InRealLife (2013)

InRealLife (2013)

You mention parents have been taking their children to see the film. Given the amount of material you must have amassed, and the immediate in-home accessibility of television, did you consider treating this subject within a TV series?

Not really. Someone said to me I’d made an analogue film for the digital age. But there’s something about the [film] documentary. Yes, very many fewer people will see it in this form. But in a way the form and the message are the same. The reason it’s slow cut, the reason kids get time to speak is all part of the message: that unless we concentrate, unless we stop and consider, unless we look and give our full attention, we’re going to miss something – there’s a price.

I think [InRealLife] is in a tradition of cinema that’s there for debate; I’m sure a lot more people will talk about it than will ever see it, and a lot of what is written about it is as important as the seeing of it. But I think cinema has that responsibility, and that very quickly – if you go for maximum viewing figures; if you make it easy – you end up with a reality TV approach of the lowest common denominator. You can’t make an intellectual argument, a slow-burn thing where you’re suddenly in a world that you didn’t expect to be in, because someone’s gone and put the kettle on. That sort of distraction is the sort of thing that the film’s not about.

InRealLife (2013)

InRealLife (2013)

If you look at the rise of documentary, there is an appetite for thoughtful, serious, combative, questioning filmmaking. We should celebrate that because that’s part of what we’re missing. If we’re so busy responding to our last email that we can’t go to the cinema – what a pity!

About this belief in the power of film, and thinking of your work with FILMCLUB, it seems to me that there was a time when it was young people’s relationship with film and/or television that we were worried about.

I don’t know. Yeah sure, Mary Whitehouse might have been worried about a film in which someone took their second foot off the floor, but this is different. You had to walk into the telly room and turn the telly on. But the nature of the internet, the fact that your phonebook, your scrapbook, your letters, your photo album, your homework, your banking is all in this one space. The fact that it’s 24/7; the first thing you look at when you wake up, the last thing you look at. The fact that the vast majority of people with smartphones take them to the loo – you can’t even do a pee without this thing – that’s a game changer. TV and radio and print and film are all huge cultural inventions; the internet is a new society. We live within it; we don’t watch it from afar.

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