Put down your smartphone, log out of Facebook and stop checking email for the next 17 minutes. That's all it takes to watch "Noah," a creepily accurate short film about the way teens use the Internet that was presented last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. (If you have trouble powering down for the duration of the movie, chances are you'll find its story all the more compelling.)
Directed by two recent university graduates -- 22-year-old Walter Woodman and 23-year-old Patrick Cederberg -- the NSFW film has already inspired discussion across the web. For parents of teens and teens-to-be, its message about young people’s sometimes destructive online impulsivity is likely particularly unsettling -- which is why it's all the more important for moms and dads to pay attention.
Don't expect to be charmed; do anticipate increased awareness and appreciation of teens' attempts to navigate their online social universe. Here, based in part on an interview with Cederberg, are six reasons to press "play."
1. It's disturbingly realistic.
Based on its young directors' collective high school experiences on Facebook and MySpace, the film captures young people's online (mis)adventures and profound digital distraction with an honesty some adults might find alarming. At no point do we see any of the characters "in real life." And yet, we get both an intimate sense of Noah's psyche and a visual of what he looks like by following his clicks, chats -- video and text-based -- and text messages on-screen.
2. If you didn't grow up with Facebook, you might be surprised.
The social media landscape changes all the time; young adults in the directors' age group lived through the rise of Facebook and graduated into an online world much more complex than the one they saw as children. For that reason, Cederberg thought “Noah” would have the most impact on people their own age -- but they’ve found it resonates with a younger audience too. "I figured kids by now would be doing stuff completely different, but it seems like there’s kind of a parallel or through-line in terms of how they use social media even now." However, his parents had a hard time connecting with the film:
When I showed my parents, neither of whom have a Facebook or own a Mac, they were both just like, "I can see the merit, but it doesn’t really click with me." ... A lot of my extended family were like, "Is this really how people behave? This is kind of sick. I didn’t expect this." ... It was surprising to me that not everybody knows that this is the kind of mindset kids are growing up with now.
3. It could inspire a meaningful conversation with your kid(s).
At the very least, it will likely encourage you to pay even closer attention to what the young people in your life are doing online. The computer is "the new television," Cederberg says -- only "it’s not just mindless entertainment now; [kids are] actually there interacting with people and putting themselves out there."
"The anonymity and ease of access isn’t always the best thing because kids can be dangerously impulsive," he argues. "If there’s one thing we can get to parents through this film, it’s: be very conscious of what your kids are doing. Because it can get pretty gross if you’re not watching." (The audience finds this out, in graphic fashion, when Noah signs onto Chatroulette.)
4. It’s not just about heartbreak.
The directors show us that social media has redeeming qualities too. “It’s the best thing and it’s the worst thing at the exact same time. The best thing being it allows for this connection; if you use social media responsibly and properly, it can lead to very meaningful connections, and it can lead to maintaining relationships that otherwise wouldn’t be there,” Cederberg says. “But at the worst of times, it essentially puts into permanence bad decisions and is something you can’t escape. Once you put something out there, it’s out there, and if in hindsight it’s not what you wanted, too bad.”
5. It's more honest about how we use the Internet than most other contemporary entertainment.
And that's certainly not an accident. Cederberg says he's sick of "watching films and TV shows where they’ll open up their phone and there’s like a blue screen with white text on it, and that’s a text message, even though it’s an iPhone."
"I feel insulted, as someone who grew up with it, to [be expected] to believe the way people use technology in movies," he goes on. Other than a few Google ads (like this one from 2009), which he identifies as an inspiration for the project, he says he hasn't seen "a truly honest depiction of how we use technology." And with Americans (collectively) spending billions and billions of minutes on social networking sites per month, the entertainment industry arguably does consumers a disservice by portraying media habits that seem old-fashioned or just plain fake.
6. It’s a reminder -- to all of us -- that Facebook is optional.
Even though they’re "on the computer all the time," Woodman and Cederberg have both bowed out of Facebook themselves. "It becomes this thing where you can just market yourself as an individual and tell people exactly what they should perceive about you ... I just didn’t want to partake in that conversation so openly," Cederberg says. In the words of a comparatively well-adjusted, non-Facebook-using stranger Noah meets on Chatroulette: “I find [Facebook] really weird and creepy. … It just makes people so crazy. Like, it’s madness. It’s just frustrating, I think, because in the end, the only place you can really have a conversation with anyone, like an honest conversation, is just with a stranger in the middle of the night.” (A Pew study released in May confirms that many teens see Facebook as a “social burden.”)
As for the future, fans have contacted the two directors about developing their idea into something new, but Cederberg thinks they've "said [their] piece" with this format. However, he hopes others will take their idea and run with it: "If it's an awesome foray into a new form of storytelling, somebody else is going to get inspired and do something so much better than it." In the meantime, they're looking into ways to actually weave social networking into the media they create, so audience members can participate seamlessly. "That's the age we're growing up in; it would be stupid to ignore it and even stupider not to take full advantage of it."