At this point in our tech-obsessed society, everyone knows that screen addiction is a very clear and present danger. We all know that we look at our phones too often and that the time we spend on social media platforms has a detrimental effect on our mental health. However, Jon Hyatt’s documentary Screened Out pushes the seriousness of that issue right into the limelight.
Hyatt’s starting point is a fairly standard one. He’s worried about his own smartphone usage and, particularly, that of his two young boys. This leads him to embark on a series of interviews with scientists, researchers and campaigners, while also undergoing a social media detox of his own.
There’s no denying the power and significance of the information at the heart of Screened Out. Hyatt’s awkwardly friendly voice-over informs us that it is estimated human beings of today spend an average of seven years of their life looking at their smartphones. Internet companies, says one interviewee, are working to “short circuit free will” in order to keep their revenue streams flowing.
The problem, then, is not the information that Screened Out does present, but rather what it doesn’t. The documentary doesn’t bring anything new to the table that has not been covered in previous docs and news reports, not to mention the world of speculative fiction — Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is built entirely around the potentially dystopian implications of screen obsession. Hyatt is often just retracing the steps of a path we’ve all walked before.
There are certainly intriguing elements to his storytelling, including the comparison between social media platforms and slot machines, but the bulk of the material now feels old hat. There’s also a conspicuous absence of any discussion of the potentially enriching role internet use can have in moderation. This takes the doomy route through the issue, which feels obvious and hackneyed.
Screened Out is at its best in the brief segments when it allows the digital natives at its heart to actually speak. Teenagers discuss the pressure to put forward your best self and, heart-breakingly, one 13-year-old reveals she still has Instagram on her phone, even after the app caused her to climb on her window ledge and consider jumping. The personal cost of screen addiction is something missing from this largely academic take, and it could have helped it stand out from the crowd.
As much as its heart emoji is in the right place, Screened Out just feels a bit passé. It’s an important issue, handled with reasonable charm by Hyatt, but there’s little here that hasn’t been said over and over again. By focusing on an academic approach rather than going straight to the people affected by the issue, Hyatt misses the chance to land the sort of punch that could really change people’s habits. Instead, most viewers will probably just shrug and keep on scrolling.
Dir: Jon Hyatt
Scr: Jon Hyatt, Karina Rotenstein
Prd: Jon Hyatt, Karina Rotenstein
DOP: Joshua Ausley, Bruce William Harper, Jon Hyatt, Daniel Smukalla
Run time: 71 mins
Screened Out is available on digital download now.