Jon Hyatt's film argues social media, gaming companies deliberately design products to hook kids and adults: 'The more we use them the more addicted we get'
Among the many "helpful" bulletins from my iPhone is a regular notice telling me how much time I have spent on the device in the past week. I don't know quite how the numbers are calculated, but they're scary. I wish I could say all of that time was spent reading substantive journalism, but some of it goes down the rabbit hole of mindless gaming and viral videos.
I am far from alone in this, of course. The new documentary Screened Out, directed by Jon Hyatt, examines the current moment that finds millions of us hypnotized by our smart phones, tablets and laptops, sucked into the electronic light show.
"Seventy-percent of adults spend almost 3-5 hours a day online," Hyatt says in voiceover in the film. "According to Common Sense Media, children up to age eight are spending up to 3 hours a day consuming screen media. Children 8-12 spend closer to 5 hours [a day]."
I was fully enslaved to my phone, spending hours on platforms... Unplugging seemed impossible.
Screened Out becomes available on digital platforms May 26 (there is some irony in watching it on one of these very devices that have monopolized our attention, but theatrical exhibition isn't an option at the moment, given the closure of theaters because of COVID-19).
Hyatt, a Toronto-based director and producer, says he understood the issue of screen addiction at an abstract level: "Parents on their devices and in turn their kids and teens as well completely changing the family dynamic... becoming exponentially more disconnected in real life." But then he began to consider his behavior.
"It forced me to finally dig deep and look at my own habits with my smartphone and realized that I was no better. I was fully enslaved to my phone, spending hours on platforms," he writes. "Unplugging seemed impossible."
Similar to Jeff Orlowski's documentary The Social Dilemma, which premiered at Sundance in January, Screened Out argues our deep attachment to social media and other screen experiences is no accident.
"These social media and gaming companies have made [their products] addictive by design," Hyatt said in a recent interview with CNN International "The more we use them the more addicted we get... We're all sitting ducks for tech companies right now."
Hyatt and his filmmaking team are not simply content to point out the problem. They are launching a major impact campaign in connection with the documentary.
"Our campaign aims to raise awareness about the public's addiction to social media and technology and the growing evidence of their negative effects on adults and children," the film's website states. "The campaign will support advocacy initiatives around federal legislation, develop calls to action, and provide resources for the general public."
Among those resources is a "healthy habits" guide to managing screen time that includes these recommendations:
"Schedule: Set specific time for screen use for yourself and your family, and stick to it. Give your kids a 5 minute warning before they get off the device, it’ll be easier for them to disengage. Parents follow the rules too and be a good role model.
"Notifications: Put down your phone and adjust the settings on your devices to only nudge you for real emergencies. Take charge of your devices and don't let them interrupt your valuable family time."
The coronavirus crisis has marooned tens of millions of people in their homes in North America alone, prompting many of us to spend even more time on our phones, tablets and laptops than before. The Screened Out website offers a wide range of resources to help in "managing screen time during COVID-19."
Those resources include educational resources for parents and kids, mental health resources and links to a variety of fitness apps. Click for details.
Hyatt, in his interview with CNN International, noted a distinction between appropriate uses of screen time in the COVID-19 era, as opposed to more deleterious ones.
"We're talking [in the documentary] about social media and online gaming," he pointed out. "We're not talking about video conferences with your friends. We're not talking about using it for work and we're not talking about your kids using it for schoolwork."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.