…which is one of the opening questions of the must-see documentary In Real Life.

I saw the film yesterday, when it was screened simultaneously in many cinemas across the country. My 15 year old daughter accompanied me. The screening was followed by a live satellite discussion with a panel that included the director Beeban Kidron, as well as Tom, a 15 year old who featured in the film.

As Kidron shared during the discussion, the aim of the documentary was to start a conversation on the impact, both positive and negative, on today’s teenagers of living in an almost exclusively digital society. Our children have been born into a world where most of us look at our mobile phones between 150 and 200 times a day, and where, even more scarily, 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years. Data is collected from all of us all the time and every time we use the internet. The film emphasises the current ‘glorification of sharing’, as it is perceived, albeit subconsciously, by teenagers using social media. ‘I share therefore I am’ has become the new sensibility. The internet archives our history, and social media increasingly uses the data it collects to define who you are. As Julian Assange states. “Google knows you better than your mother does’.

In Real Life follows teenagers whose lives almost exclusively revolve around the internet and social media, including those addicted to online porn (the teenager interviewed candidly admitted to the attraction of constantly revisiting these sites, where he can briefly step outside of his own life and into one where ‘it’s you and all about you’) and those dependent on gaming.

There was also the heartening story of Tom, who came out on Twitter and subsequently met his boyfriend on social media. The boys have now met in ‘real life’ and seem to have truly connected. This was the one positive story within a very sobering and often shocking film.

Kidron states at the outset that the film began from her observation that all teenagers today seem to be constantly connected to the internet and to social media. This is the era our children have been born into, and one that we are all adapting to (children most rapidly) as the digital network expands exponentially and way beyond the imagination of its founders. But, as one expert interviewed commented, adaptation comes at a cost, and he questions what might have been lost alongside that adaptive process.

Of course, we can never quantify what might have been lost, or exactly what the internet might have replaced in our children’s lives. What we do know, is that teenagers spend 40% more time with friends online that with them ‘in real life’.

Our children have also been born into a society that has witnessed the collapse of where children can physically go and be safe. Today, being at home is usually assumed to be safer than being out on the streets. In Real Life highlights the myth that can underlie this assumption. Teenagers can be exposed to much more danger on their laptops behind the closed doors of their bedrooms than we might want to believe. We hear the tragic story of one teenager, a victim of internet bullying who committed suicide. Bullying has increased exponentially on the internet. It is easier to cyber bully than to do it ‘in real life’…

The issues around the ethics of digital networks and of internet safety and privacy are multiple and complex. This technological phenomenon is here to stay, and it will continue to increase and to expand in ways that we cannot even imagine right now, all of which is to be embraced. Inevitably, dangers lie within such a huge cultural revolution and these need to be addressed first and foremost for the young and for the vulnerable, who do need protection, but not control.

For me personally, I plan to stop my practice of ‘fractured presence’, when I am in the same space as my daughter but only semi-present, distracted by something vital on the internet, which of course is never that critical, or important, or even necessary, in the end…

CQ

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