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."
Also on HuffPost:
March 2013: Teens and Technology
<strong>Source</strong>: Pew Research Center <strong>Gist</strong>: "Fully 95% of teens are online, a percentage that has been consistent since 2006. Yet, the nature of teens’ internet use has transformed dramatically during that time ... Teens are just as likely to have a cell phone as they are to have a desktop or laptop computer. And increasingly these phones are affording teens always-on, mobile access to the internet — in some cases, serving as their primary point of access."
February 2013: Preschoolers Can Learn Great Things From TV
<strong>Source</strong>: Huffington Post (to read the actual study, visit <a href="http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2013/02/13/peds.2012-3872.full.pdf">Pediatrics</a> -- subscription required) <strong>Gist</strong>: "New research out today by Dr Christakis finds that putting our time and energy into working to improve what our children watch, not just how much they watch, can have a positive impact on their behavior -- even for children as young as 3 years of age."
February 2013: Media and Violence: An Analysis of Current Research
<strong>Source</strong>: Common Sense Media <strong>Gist</strong>: "While longitudinal research does allow us to speak in terms of a 'causal' relationship, it is probably more accurate and useful to think about media violence as a 'risk factor' rather than a 'cause' of violence — one variable among many that increases the risk of violent behavior among some children."
January 2013: Screen Time Not Linked To Kids' Physical Activity
<strong>Source</strong>: Reuters (to read the actual study, visit <a href="http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1548755">JAMA Pediatrics</a> -- log-in required) <strong>Gist</strong>: "[R]esearchers said the new study backs up earlier findings showing too much screen time and not enough exercise may be separate issues that parents and schools need to address independently."
December 2012: How Families Interact on Facebook
<strong>Source</strong>: Facebook <strong>Gist</strong>: "We investigated anonymized and automatically processed posts and comments by people self-identified as parents and children to understand how conversation patterns with each other might be a bit different from those with their other friends."
November 2012: Parents, Teens, and Online Privacy
<strong>Source</strong>: Pew Research Center <strong>Gist</strong>: "Most parents of teenagers are concerned about what their teenage children do online and how their behavior could be monitored by others. Some parents are taking steps to observe, discuss, and check up on their children’s digital footprints."
<strong>Source</strong>: C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health <strong>Gist</strong>: "In this Poll, nearly two out of three adults expressed strong support for proposed COPPA updates, including requiring apps designed for kids to confirm that users are at least 13 and prohibiting apps from collecting personal information from users under age 13."
November 2012: The Online Generation Gap
<strong>Source</strong>: Family Online Safety Institute <strong>Gist</strong>: "These surveys indicate that teens’ concerns about their online safety parallel parents’ concerns more closely than parents realize and that many teens are taking steps to protect their privacy and personal information. Nonetheless, teens suggest that parents are not as informed about what their teens do online as parents think they are, and some teens are taking risks by providing personal information to strangers online."
<strong>Source</strong>: Common Sense Media <strong>Gist</strong>: "America’s teachers -- whether they are long-time classroom veterans or young, tech-savvy ones, at wealthy schools or low-income schools, public or private, elementary or high school -- surface relatively consistent concerns: Students are having issues with their attention span, writing, and face-to-face communication, and, in the experience of teachers, children’s media use is contributing to the problem. On the plus side, teachers find that young people’s facility with media is helping them find information quickly and multitask more effectively."
November 2012: How Teens Do Research in the Digital World
<strong>Source</strong>: Pew Research Center <strong>Gist</strong>: "Three-quarters of AP [Advanced Placement] and NWP [National Writing Project] teachers say that the internet and digital search tools have had a 'mostly positive' impact on their students’ research habits, but 87% say these technologies are creating an 'easily distracted generation with short attention spans' and 64% say today’s digital technologies 'do more to distract students than to help them academically.'"
<strong>Source</strong>: Common Sense Media <strong>Gist</strong>: "Three out of four teens have social networking sites, and half of all teens are on their sites on a daily basis. But despite our concerns about social media, in the vast majority of cases, these media do not appear to be causing great tumult in teenagers’ lives."
March 2012: Teens, Smartphones and Texting: Texting Volume Is Up While Frequency of Voice Calling Is Down
<strong>Source</strong>: Pew Research Center <strong>Gist</strong>: “The volume of texting among teens has risen from 50 texts a day in 2009 to 60 texts for the median teen text user. The frequency of teens' phone chatter with friends - on cell phones and landlines - has fallen. But the heaviest texters are also the heaviest talkers with their friends.”
<strong>Source</strong>: Pediatrics <strong>Gist</strong>: "There was no evidence that children receiving the active video games were more active in general, or at anytime, than children receiving the inactive video games."
November 2011: Teens, Kindness And Cruelty on Social Network Sites: How American Teens Navigate the New World of “Digital Citizenship”
<strong>Source</strong>: Pew Research Center <strong>Gist</strong>: “As social media use has become pervasive in the lives of American teens, a new study finds that 69% of the teenagers who use social networking sites say their peers are mostly kind to one another on such sites. Still, 88% of these teens say they have witnessed people being mean and cruel to another person on the sites, and 15% report that they have been the target of mean or cruel behavior on social network sites.”
<strong>Source</strong>: Pediatrics <strong>Gist</strong>: “We found that children in as many as 70% of home-based child care settings and 36% of center-based child care settings watch television daily. More importantly, when television is viewed at all, infants and children spend 2 to 3 hours watching in home-based programs and ~1.5 hours watching in center-based programs.”
October 2011: Media Use by Children Younger Than 2 Years
<strong>Source</strong>: Pediatrics <strong>Gist</strong>: “This updated policy statement provides further evidence that media—both foreground and background—have potentially negative effects and no known positive effects for children younger than 2 years. Thus, the AAP reafﬁrms its recommendation to discourage media use in this age group. This statement also discourages the use of background television intended for adults when a young child is in the room.”
October 2011: Zero to Eight: Children's Media Use in America
<strong>Source</strong>: Common Sense Media <strong>Gist</strong>: "Nine-month-olds spend nearly an hour a day watching television or DVDs, 5-year-olds are begging to play with their parents’ iPhones, and 7-year-olds are sitting down in front of a computer several times a week to play games, do homework, or check out how their avatars are doing in their favorite virtual worlds. Television is still as popular as ever, but reading may be beginning to trend downward. Having an accurate understanding of the role of media in children’s lives is essential for all of those concerned about promoting healthy child development: parents, educators, pediatricians, public health advocates, and policymakers, to name just a few."
July 2011: Cell Phone Study ‘Misleading’: Children May Still Be At Increased Cancer Risk, Experts Say
<strong>Source</strong>: The Huffington Post <strong>Gist</strong>: “[E]xperts have some serious concerns regarding the methods and conclusions of the first study evaluating the connection between cell phone radiation and brain cancer in children and teens. Not only was the study flawed, they note, but it was also financially supported by the cell phone industry.”
October 2010: Children's Screen Viewing Is Related to Psychological Difficulties Irrespective of Physical Activity
<strong>Source</strong>: Pediatrics <strong>Gist</strong>: “This study found that greater television and computer use was related to greater psychological difﬁculties, independent of gender, age, level of deprivation, pubertal status, and objectively measured physical activity and sedentary time.”
<strong>Source</strong>: Pediatrics <strong>Gist</strong>: "Viewing television and playing video games each are associated with increased subsequent attention problems in childhood. It seems that a similar association among television, video games, and attention problems exists in late adolescence and early adulthood."
<strong>Source</strong>: Pew Research Center <strong>Gist</strong>: “Fully two-thirds of teen texters say they are more likely to use their cell phones to text their friends than talk to them to them by cell phone.”
January 2010: Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds
<strong>Source</strong>: Kaiser Family Foundation <strong>Gist</strong>: “Today, 8-18 year-olds devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes (7:38) to using entertainment media across a typical day (more than 53 hours a week). And because they spend so much of that time ‘media multitasking’ (using more than one medium at a time), they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes (10:45) worth of media content into those 7½ hours.”