Review: ‘Screened Out,’ starring Jon Hyatt, Jim Steyer, Adam Alter, Nicholas Kardaras, Alex Pang, Jean Twenge and Nir Eyal

May 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jon Hyatt with one of his sons in “Screened Out” (Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures)

“Screened Out”

Directed by Jon Hyatt

Culture Representation: The documentary “Screened Out” interviews an almost all-white group of people (with some Asians) representing the middle-class and upper-class discussing Internet/online addiction, particularly how this addiction affects children.

Culture Clash: Internet addictions are harder to break as people become increasingly dependent on technology to get information and make social connections.

Culture Audience: “Screened Out” will appeal mostly to people who have an interest in how technology might have a negative impact on our lives, but the documentary does not really investigate the insidious marketing practices of the Internet companies whose business models are designed to get people hooked.

A scene from ‘Screened Out” (Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures)

“Screened Out” is the type of documentary where the director is the narrator and on-camera interviewer to explore an important social topic. In this case, this narration/interview style works well because director Jon Hyatt (who makes his documentary feature debut with “Screened Out”) includes his and his family’s own personal experiences with Internet usage in the documentary’s investigation of Internet addiction. What doesn’t work so well is that the documentary fails to thoroughly examine the larger issues brought up in the film, such as Internet companies abusing their power to take over people’s lives and violate privacy.

Internet addiction, according to numerous experts in the film, is a result of this corporate abuse of power. But the filmmakers of this documentary seem unable or afraid to really dig deeper to expose how these Internet companies have made billions in revenue by deliberately causing Internet addiction. Instead, the documentary spends most of its time bemoaning that Internet addiction exists and how this addiction in society is getting worse. This is an obvious fact that the documentary repeats to the point of sometimes causing viewer boredom.

Hyatt starts off the film by including a personal touch in describing how much he and his wife (who have three underage sons) use the Internet. He says, “I sure do love my phone, but I think we may all share the same problem: I look at it all the time.” Hyatt’s wife, who’s a homemaker, admits on camera that she’s addicted to using her smartphone. The documentary includes some vague, unsourced statistics that adults use the Internet on average of three to seven hours a day. The numbers for teenagers can be much higher.

As a non-scientific experiment, Hyatt decided to deactivate his social-media accounts while making the documentary, to see how it would affect him. He says that his wife wouldn’t make the same commitment. Toward the end of the film, he reports that not being on social media made his life emotionally healthier, since he was able to focus more on his family and enjoy other activities he might not have had time to do if he had been on social media.

But this hiatus from social media was temporary, not permanent. What’s the point of putting something like that in the film if someone just goes right back into using social media again?

The documentary does take a deep dive in trying to understand how Internet addiction affects people who are addicted. But oddly, for a documentary about Internet addiction, it doesn’t include any examples of people who’ve truly conquered their addiction.

The documentary interviews a few unidentified patients at reSTART, a rehab center in Fall City, Washington, that focuses on Internet and computer addiction. (All of the patients interviewed are young men in their late teens or early 20s.) But there’s no follow-up with any of these addicts after they got out of the treatment center and back into the real world, where the hardest work of managing addiction begins.

There are numerous talking heads interviewed in the film, and many of them repeat the same or similar information. Dr. Dimitri Christiaki, a pediatrician at the University of Washington, compares Internet addiction to gambling addiction: “All the aspects of gambling addiction are there.”

Nir Ayal, author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” says that there is a four-step process to getting people addicted: (1) trigger; (2) action; (3) reward; and (4) investment. An example is given about how this process works for an app or a social-media platform.

The “trigger” is an alert to view something. The “action” is actually viewing or engaging in the content by uploading, downloading, sharing, or making a comment/reaction. The “reward” is when other people see a user’s action. And the “investment” is when the user buys or subscribes to whatever is being promoted, which almost always involves the user having to give personal information.

Hyatt notes in a voiceover that most apps are used to monetize our attention, and that we’re addicted to getting intermittent rewards. It’s similar to how someone can spend hours on a slot machine, because the chance of winning something is always there, and not knowing when there could be a jackpot causes someone to keep engaging in the activity, in fear of missing out. The documentary includes computer graphics illustrating how an Internet addict’s brain waves can be similar to a cocaine addict’s brain waves, due to the dopamine rush that comes from the addict getting a “fix.”

“Screened Out” includes archival footage of former Facebook president Sean Parker (speaking at an Axios summit) and former Facebook vice president of user growth Chamath Palihapitiya (speaking at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business) coming right out and admitting that Facebook is deliberately designed to get people addicted to the Internet. These two former Facebook executives say that Facebook uses the guise of connecting people with each other, but it’s really a way for people to voluntarily give up private information that Facebook can then sell as data to Facebook’s advertisers. Parker said that Facebook is a “social content feedback loop” that’s “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” Palihapitiya said with no remorse, “We are creating tools that are ripping apart the way that society works.”

Alex Pang, author of “The Distraction Addiction,” comments in the documentary: “Ultimately, people have free will. They have the ability to put down their phones. But I think these [Internet] companies are doing everything that they can to short-circuit free will, in a way, and make us forget we had it in the first place.”

Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, a psychotherapist and author of “Glow Kids” (a nonfiction book about kids being addicted to computer devices), has this to say in the documentary: “This is not an addiction by accident. It’s an addiction by design.” At the beginning of the film, he’s shown saying that the Internet companies who design these addictions are basically implementing a “brain hack” on people.

Meanwhile, Common Sense Media founder/CEO Jim Steyer declares, “The last time that [the U.S.] Congress passed an important piece of legislation around privacy and regulating technology, [Facebook co-founder/chairman/CEO] Mark Zuckerberg was in first grade. Congress has a had disgraceful performance in the United States, largely because they accept large contributions [from tech companies] in the United States.” Hyatt then says in a voiceover that the tech industry spent $50 billion to lobby Congress in 2017 (the documentary does not cite the source for this statistic) and that the tech industry has the “largest lobbyists in Washington, D.C.,” when it comes to spending power.

The documentary also mentions that South Korea has such a big problem with addictions to the Internet and video games that South Korea has more than 400 rehab centers specifically for these type of addictions. In 2011, South Korea passed the Youth Protection Revision Act, also known as the Shutdown Law or Cinderella Law, which prohibits children under the age of 16 from playing online games from midnight to 6 a.m., in an effort to curb this addiction among South Korea’s youth. Dr. Tae Kyung, the National Mental Health Center department head of addictions in Seoul, describes Internet companies as having “an unethical attitude” by “ignoring their duties” in how their products and services negatively affect consumers.

“Screened Out” also mentions that China’s government is allowing Internet companies to track people’s personal data to rate people by how they act online. The data can then determine if certain people will be allowed to stay at certain hotels, can be prevented from getting certain jobs, decide if their kids can go to certain schools, and if people can “be publicly shamed as a bad citizens,” Hyatt adds in a voiceover. He then asks, “How long before these social ratings spread across the globe?”

Adam Alter, an author and New York University associate professor of marketing and psychology even says in the film that when it comes to Internet addiction, focusing on “punishing the end user” (the addict) is a “short-term solution,” when the bigger problem that needs to be addressed is how to reign in the “pushers”—in other words, the companies that are deliberately selling the Internet content, platforms and products that were designed to get people addicted.

But what do the filmmakers of “Screened Out” do with all that information? Nothing.

Instead of investigating further, the documentary circles back to talking about things that most people already know: Being hooked on the Internet takes time away from connecting with people in more personal ways. Young people who don’t know what it’s like to live in a world without Internet technology are also the generations that are growing up with cyberbullying and all the emotional damage that comes from it. The lives and personas that people present on the Internet are often exaggerated or false, compared to the true reality.

A few of the experts interviewed in the documentary have almost doomsday-level comments about how the Internet is changing society. David Sax, journalist/author of “Revenge of Analog,” says about the Internet: “It’s interrupted the regular flow of our human conversations that’s incredibly damaging to our social relationships, damaging to our empathy, damaging to the way we communicate over thousands of years of evolution.”

Hilarie Cash, co-founder/chief clinical officer for reSTART (the rehab center whose specialty is Internet and computer addiction), says about this type of addiction: “I think we are entering a health crisis and we’re asleep at the wheel.” Lisa Guernsey, director of the Learning Technologies Project at New America, has this to say about the Internet’s effect on children: “Today’s kids may not learn to interact face-to-face with people in an authentic way.” Really? That’s what people used to say about how television would affect kids.

Other experts interviewed in the movie included Michael Rich, an associate professor at pediatrics at Harvard Medical School; Genevieve Roy Holmes, a life coach at Village Counseling and Coaching in North Carolina; Lisa Pont of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto; registered nurse Melanie Hempe, CEO of Families Managing Media, which she founded after her oldest son became addicted to video games; and high school teacher Mark Danner.

Mary Barhydt, a teacher at of the San Francisco Waldorf School, says that many of the school’s students have parents who work at Internet companies, and the parents give the kids limited access to the Internet because they know the dangers of Internet/computer addiction. It’s pointed out in the documentary that Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs also limited his kids from using the type of technology that made him a billionaire.

A segment of the film is devoted specifically to how heavy Internet usage affects teenagers. Several unidentified teenagers are interviewed, but there’s nothing revealing about their interviews. The most meaningful interview is with a 13-year-old girl identified only as April (the only teenager in the film whose name is in the movie), who says her Instagram addiction nearly ruined her life. According to April, she became so depressed and envious at seeing other people on Instagram with seemingly more glamorous lives that she tried to commit suicide by attempting to jump out of a window in her family’s multi-story home.

April’s father, who’s interviewed in the documentary but not identified by his name, says that he was able to prevent the suicide because he was home at the time and saw April on the window ledge. Even after April went through counseling, she and her father admit that she’s still on Instagram on a regular basis. Her parents temporarily took her phone away, but she convinced them to give the phone back to her. There are lots of arguments that could be made about what a parent should do in this situation, but the documentary doesn’t reveal enough about April, her family and her recovery process to pass judgment on whether or not her recovery is being handled correctly.

Jean Twenge, author of “iGen” and professor of psychology at San Diego State University, says that it’s no coincidence that suicide rates among teenagers have doubled since 2010, which parallels the rise of smartphones that make Internet access more portable than ever before. She describes iGen as the generation of people born in 1995 or later who don’t know what it’s like to live in a world without the Internet.

In the documentary, Twenge suggests that parents limit children’s leisure Internet usage to two hours a day or less. But what the documentary doesn’t really acknowledge is how unrealistic that demand can be for teenagers, especially those who have their own smartphones or tablets. Several of the teenagers and educators interviewed in the film say that it’s common for teenagers to stay up very late to be on their technology devices when their parents think that the kids are asleep. That sleep deprivation can then cause problems with the children’s health, emotional well-being and how they do in school.

Unless parents confiscate a child’s devices during certain hours of the day or night, they can’t really control how long a child can be on the Internet. It’s an issue that the documentary doesn’t adequately address, because the film comes to this unrealistic and vague “one size fits all” solution that parents can just limit Internet usage to two hours or less a day as a way to prevent addiction.

The documentary should have had some of the experts give practical, step-by-step tips on how that “two hours or less per day” goal can be realistically achieved, considering that most kids who are old enough to be fairly independent in other ways (such as having a driver’s license) will not reduce their Internet usage without major fights. And even if a child is given an outdated phone that doesn’t have Internet access, there’s still the issue of the child being addicted to anything that can be done on a phone or a computer screen.

Harvard Medical School pediatrician Rich also mentions something that’s common sense but easier said than done: Parents have to be role models when it comes to Internet usage. If a parent is addicted to the Internet or being online, it’s harder for that parent to enforce rules about limiting Internet usage for a child.

In the documentary, Hyatt interviews two of his sons, who admit that it makes them feel sad when he pays more attention to his phone than he pays attention to them. But aside from acknowledging this issue in the documentary, Hyatt is vague about how he’s changed his Internet habits. At the end of the film, he only says that he uses his smartphone “far less,” in order to spend more quality time with his family.

“Screened Out” also veers into unnecessary directions, such as when Hyatt visits the Personal Computer Museum in Brantford, Ontario, and interviews the museum founder/curator Syd Bolton, who passed away in 2018. (The film has a brief “in memoriam” dedication to him at the end.) Although it’s somewhat interesting to see some of the museum’s computers from bygone eras, the reality is that a tour and lecture of old technology and outdated computers don’t really belong in this documentary.

Likewise, “Screened Out” loses focus when it starts going into off-topic interviews with people who seem to be there to promote their yoga and meditation businesses, such as Boundless Mind co-founder/COO Ramsay Brown and Edwin Taub of the Kadampa Meditation Centre. Although yoga and mediation can be ways to treat Internet addiction, they’re not the only activities that are alternatives to using the Internet. And let’s face it: teens and pre-teens, who are at the most risk of becoming Internet addicts, just aren’t in the demographic of who usually does yoga and meditation.

“Screened Out” has also been released at one of the worst times to advocate for people to spend less time on the Internet. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have to social distance by staying at home as much possible and have no choice but to spend more time on the Internet for work or school, compared to what life was like before the pandemic. Even after the pandemic subsides, it’s already a foregone conclusion that more work and school activities will shift to being online, especially if it’s more cost-effective.

The Internet isn’t going away, so a better documentary would have explored what’s being done to regulate the increasing amount of control and privacy invasions that Internet companies are having in people’s lives. It seems as if the filmmakers didn’t want to fully investigate the “powers that be” that push Internet addiction. Stanford University behavioral lab director Nicholas Hall said something in “Screened Out” that perhaps explains why it’s easier to blame the addicts than to blame the pushers: “We’re scared, because the average person doesn’t have the same power that these companies do.”

Dark Star Pictures released “Screened Out” on digital and VOD on May 26, 2020.