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Beeban Kidron: 'we Need To Talk About Teenagers And The Internet'


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The boy addicted to porn; the girl who endured sexual assault to get her BlackBerry back… In Beeban Kidron's sobering documentary British teenagers open up about how they use and feel about their smartphones and the internet.

When Beeban Kidron makes a film, she says, she always tends to start on the street. InRealLife, which is a film no parent and no teenager should miss, began in exactly that way. She went out with her camera and started talking to a group of lads in London. "What is the best thing about the internet?" Kidron wondered. One of the boys, a 15-year-old called Ryan, answered her without hesitation. "Porn," he said. The following day Kidron – who began her film-making career more than 30 years ago when she took a camera with her to Greenham Common – phoned Ryan to see if he might want to talk further about his answer; she talked, too, to his mother, and eventually she was invited into the great terra incognita of contemporary life, the teenage bedroom.

Ryan proved articulate and unembarrassable enough to give Kidron, and her camera, a guided tour of his world. It was a place dominated by his anytime free access to hardcore pornography, via one screen or another, a place he and his friends appeared to know just as intimately as their own neighbourhood. What Ryan knew of relationships, and of women, he had mostly learned from his daily immersion in adult videos, picked from a menu to suit all conceivable tastes, none of which any longer held much curiosity for him. He acknowledged a sadness in himself about all this, but he was addicted all the same; it appeared abnormal not to want to watch. When Kidron followed Ryan back out on to the street, and on to the tube, he appeared to carry everything he had seen with him. "I've ruined the sense of love," he tells Kidron at one point. He approaches potential girlfriends in the same manner he surfs his favourite websites, always restless, always looking for the excitement of the perfect transaction, always vaguely disappointed.

It is, I say to her, quite hard to watch Ryan's confessional, particularly as you have the sense that in speaking about these things to a stranger, he for the first time realises something of the extent of his lost innocence, a place he can't get back to. Kidron, who carries lightly the title Baroness for her pioneering work not just in making such films as the BBC's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit but in spreading the narrative wonder of great movies to schoolkids across the country through her FilmClub, says that many of her friends have said the same thing. "A few people find it too difficult, that first scene, because I ask questions about sex, and about coming and everything, but that is exactly where I think the moral conversation goes weird and wrong. I mean kids are watching these things all the time. We know they are. So why are we so keen to withhold the questions about it?"

Kidron is talking in the garden of her weekend home deep in the Suffolk countryside. Sitting under an ancient spreading tree, she tells the stories of her film with an urgency that is part alarmed adult, part relentless journalist. Though she dwelt on many stories like Ryan's her quest into the often disturbing, sometimes life-affirming realities of teenagers and the internet, is concentrated in five or six real lives. In one, a girl who does not reveal her identity, talks with heartbreaking candour about how she would do anything for her BlackBerry; when a gang of boys takes it from her she recounts how she endured sexual assault in order to have it back. In another chapter an older teenager describes how he lost his place at Oxford University because of an addiction to gaming, the only thing he had ever cared for. Elsewhere Kidron's camera confronts the uncomprehending grief of parents whose son took his own life after being threatened in a chatroom, and unravels the long-distance romance between two gay 15-year-olds, who text and message each other thousands of times without ever meeting. The stories are extreme, but in each case they point to elements of a culture that has become all but universal. Kidron's aim is to provoke the grown-up debate about the implications of that culture that is long overdue.

TOBIN-19--001.jpg Tobin, 19, was forced to give up his place at Oxford University, as his obsession with gaming had taken precedence over his studies.

"I think my biggest fear," she says, "was that people would see these five kids as 'kids with an issue'. But actually there is a generation of children affected in different ways. Ryan's life is not extraordinary." Even before taking her camera out on the street Kidron kept on hearing about blowjob parties among teenagers, about pictures of girls having sex being messaged around their schools. "It's true to say that there are certain parts of the population where this is all accepted," she says. "But the culture is also pervasive. One of the motivators for me making the film was that a friend of my daughter came round to talk to me about a boy she had her eye on and he said she could be his girlfriend if she gave him a blowjob. She's a very bright middle-class girl, now at a great unversity, and so on. But she was not immune or even surprised by that sort of transaction culture."

Kidron's stories of the teenagers in the film are punctuated by interviews with some of the stronger intellectual voices engaged with the limits and possibilities of the world wide web, commentators ranging from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to the prophetic Cassandra of the digital age, Sherry Turkle, to Julian Assange, preaching libertarian freedom from his prison of the Ecuadorean embassy. She was anxious not to appear either a luddite or an over-anxious parent. A lot of what she discovered about the teenagers' lives challenged her own liberal instincts.

"I come from the school who thought the internet could be the great democratising force," she says, "that getting rid of the gatekeepers was a positive move. But equally I believe we shouldn't ever duck problems. The thing I have come to find astonishing is that people from all political sides routinely say that the internet has to be the model of free speech and freedom. I wonder where else the level of freedom these kids are faced with exists? Why on the internet and only on the internet?"

Since that libertarian rhetoric comes most forcefully from individuals who made billions of dollars on the strength of those freedoms in their 20s, I suggest, and from academics whose lucrative careers depend on it, perhaps we should all be a tiny bit more critical?

"Exactly. Why is it that Eric Schmidt [executive chairman of Google] has a catflap into the White House or Downing Street? Why can you film anywhere in California if you pay a small fee apart from around Google HQ? How come my stuff is available to them, but they are off-limits to me?"

In the course of making her film Kidron was kicked out of a lot of places that preach liberty and openness. She had been struck, in talking to the children she met, that they had no idea at all how the internet actually functioned. They had bought the ethereal idea of "the cloud", that benign mystical repository of all knowledge and data; when she asked them where they thought it was, they all looked heavenwards. Part of her mission then becomes to follow the cables back to the out-of-town data centres that capture all our secret thoughts and desires (and sell them on to advertisers). She succeeds eventually in filming inside such a place, the great hardwired nerve centre of digital capitalism.

It seemed to me watching the film that the concept of the cloud was another great piece of airy obfuscation on the part of the internet corporations, who like to peddle the childlike and the playful in the way that banks used to flog you credit cards called Smile and Egg and Marbles and Goldfish, to encourage you not to think too hard about the small print (what could possibly go wrong?). The language of the internet seemed to set Kidron's alarm bells ringing too.

"Yes of course, all that "cloud" and "like" and "friend" and "google" and "twitter". The nursery language makes it seem a safe Teletubby land where nothing bad could happen. I wanted to make it clear to the kids who bought into that that actually this is real, it is all mappable like an empire. Are we all comfortable with this? Shouldn't we demand not only that it sound safe for our children to explore, but that it is safe? When you make such arguments you get the response from the billionaires that they just own the pipes that stuff comes through. That is completely at odds with the knowledge that these companies – Google and Facebook and the rest – routinely take our data and sell it on to advertisers. Their business is clearly content, data. We have to start asking why they are not being made responsible for it."

Kidron is 52. Like me she is therefore of one of the last generations that can still recall a pre-digital adolescence. The time when phone calls were limited to 10 minutes at the foot of the stairs. One of the interesting things about her film is the way it reveals that even the first generation evangelists for the liberating possibilities of the new technology, like Jimmy Wales or Clay Shirky (author of Here Comes Everybody) have slightly shifted in some of their rhetoric. Wales, she discovers, does not use a smartphone, just an old text and voice handset; he likes the old idea of the internet as something you do at your desk, and leave behind to have dinner. Shirky, the charismatic guru of New York University, told her that he viewed the smartphone as an explosive device that can get at you at any time. "Clay described with horror the way it is sent to you with every possible interruption and alert already built into it and set to intrude on your life in any way it can," she recalls. "Eighty per cent of people never change those factory settings. It owns you from the start. It comes to you rather than you going to it."

Luis von Ahn, creator of CAPTCHA technology describes, neutrally, at one point in the film the ways in which everything about the internet is increasingly designed to be addictive, using the ongoing trillion-clicks of data to analyse what keeps people coming back, checking for updates, exploiting our highly evolved need to touch, to respond, to feel, for commercial ends. "We are entrapping our young people in this world," Kidron says.

Does she think politicians get all the implications of this?

"Well, when politicians say, 'Oh, parents should supervise their kids' internet use' it drives me crazy. This is like the new world order, we have never seen anything like it and our children are carrying it around with them in their pockets. Parents cannot be in the same physical space as their children at all times. We have to have some shared policy on it all."

Adele-Mayr-001.jpg Proving that not all teens are content with being part of a purely digital community, Adele Mayr attended a YouTube meet-up in London’s Hyde Park.

Regulation might be part of the answer, she believes, but also some kind of shift in cultural attitudes, of the kind that has lately attended smoking. That it is not OK to be constantly checking your phone in front of your children (many of the teenagers Kidron spoke to felt they had been abandoned by parents in favour of iPhones and BlackBerrys). That there should be certain situations where phones are unacceptable – at mealtimes; in some public spaces, and so on.

Most of the responsibility has to lie, however, she thinks, with the corporations. As the recent changes to policy from Twitter and Ask.fm show, internet companies are quick to cave in when their commercial interests appear to be threatened by public outrage. "I think it is up to the providers of any service to deliver safe goods," Kidron says, "and we need to let them know that. The idea that these people cannot put their resources to uncover the source of child pornography, or cannot work out the ways to pursue bullies who send death and rape threats is patently absurd. They can afford it and and we should demand it of them."

She is bleakly amused by the fact that to make a film like hers she had to spend half her time with lawyers or getting permissions, had to spend £250 an hour in an editing suite blurring the nipples of people in shots of pornographic films, whereas you can film pretty much anyting on your iPhone and stick it on the internet and no one bats an eye. Why is that different? she wonders.

It is interesting that the two positive stories in her film both observe young people making the transition from their virtual worlds to real life, contemporary rites of passage. In the first a large-scale meet-up is organised through social networks on the occasion of the arrival in London of a star blogger. Kidron's footage of the event has the appearance of a 60s peace festival, shiny happy people holding hands, playing Twister in the park, dancing and singing and laughing together. It comes as a joyful, sunlit contrast to the shut-in world of the bedroom that preceded it, pale faces illuminated by screens. The second love story ends her film when she encourages the young gay teenagers who have exchanged a million texts and dreamed of getting married on Skype to journey the length of the country to see each other in person. It is a remarkably intimate scene, including their spontaneous laughter as, hugging, they hold their phones together as they both have an app that allows them to share all their data.

The scenes remind you of the imagined utopias in which the internet was first conceived, as a peer-to-peer community exchange, a way of finding like-minded people ("if you are a gay adolescent in Morecambe," Kidron suggests, "I can obviously see that it might be quite a wonderful thing…").

When we talk, the stories about the Twitter abuse of Stella Creasy MP and Caroline Criado-Perez have been much in the news. I wonder if Kidron, with her background in feminist protest, sees an inbuilt gender imbalance in some of the tone of social media. Does the medium itself work to encourage misogyny, in her view?

She is unsure, though it is clear that "much of it – the anonymity and so on – is very polarising. There is no doubt girls get more judgmental and sexualised comments – let's not forget that Facebook was invented to give 'hot or not' ratings to women on campus. That thought is in its DNA. The ubiquity of porn has led to the 'pornification' of society as a whole. The fact that what used to be called soft porn is now called advertising is very problematic for young women."

In the course of making her film Kidron spent a lot of time on pro-anorexia sites and self-harming sites, but again even the less extreme incarnations of teenage social media seemed inflected with some of the same issues. All the research she read showed that the more you use social media as a young woman the unhappier you are. "The reason seems to be that people are forever posting pictures that are happy pictures. When you are alone and you look at everyone at the party pouting for the camera you tend to think: all those people are happy – why aren't I? There is a clear link between that feeling and the other depressive behaviours and eating disorders."

For all this, the most disturbing line in her film, "the shark fin moment", she suggests, comes when Luis van Ahn reveals what all app designers know – that the aggregate effect of the addictive, restless, consumer-led habits of how young people look at screens now means that "they cannot concentrate on more than one sentence on a page". It is that moment that really links this film to Kidron's ongoing efforts to engage children in longer narratives through her FilmClub, created in 2006 with co-founder Lindsay Mackie, which now involves 7,000 schools across the country. If there is a real casualty of the digital world it is children's ability to engage with extended narrative, Kidron believes. FilmClub is one antidote to that.

"You know," she says, "I left school when I was 16. I did not understand school and it did not understand me. But I did grow up in a world of books and a world of stories and there was a lot of conversation around the dinner table. We are still fed this idea that children are either feral or self-absorbed. It seems to me we have failed children in that as a culture we hardly even try to give them shared stories any more. We don't go to church or synagogue or wherever. We don't even always sit and talk at the end of the domestic day. Every culture has always told its story verbally. So that was how FilmClub came about, as a place where children could sit together and share a two-hour narrative and talk about it. They often say that they see themselves reflected in ways they could not imagine..."

Kidron tells me she hopes that at least some children will be able to watch this film: despite its frank opening scenes she is hoping for it to be released as a 12A (it since has been certified as such). When we speak she has done one screening for teenagers in Oxford. It was, she says, extraordinary the way they queued up afterwards to ask her questions: "Do you think we should cancel Facebook?" or "You know we really hate our phones, the influence they have over us, but how can we do without them?"

Her film does not pretend to have the answers to such questions, but it makes an excellent place to begin to look for them.


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