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InRealLife – how teenagers have learned to live online

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New documentary InRealLife asks if immersing young people in the internet is a good thing. Ken Olende thinks it raises more questions than it answers
Issue 2371
Tom, aged 15, who came out and met his boyfriend online

Tom, aged 15, who came out and met his boyfriend online

Two teenage boys discuss the pornography they watch on the net, and the view of women and sexuality it promotes. A young woman talks about how she felt so isolated when she lost her Blackberry that she had sex for money to be able to replace it.

Beeban Kidron’s documentary on teenagers and the internet opens like a warning for parents on the horrors of the web. But it develops into a kaleidoscope of hopes and worries about the potential of the internet, mobiles, games and all the electronic media we engage with.

Between the interviews with teenagers that make up most of the film are interviews with experts on various aspects of psychology or the internet. 

The film raises, but doesn’t answer, the question of to what extent young people today are more alienated in their relationships as a result of technological change. Teenage boys objectified women in degrading ways and teenage girls were pressured into sex before the advent of the internet. 

InRealLife does provide statistics about how much easier it is now to be offensive and bullying on sites like Facebook. People feel much more confident to make abusive comments online—ones they might not say in person. 

Kidron talks to the parents of a boy who hanged himself after online bullying. Another strand of the film discusses how modern technology emphasises a constant need for new experience, lamenting the lack of time for quiet reflection.

A student who plays X-Box five hours a day dropped out of university after failing his first year. He said he hadn’t realised how much work was required for a degree—which was true of many students before video games were invented.


One theorist talks about how 40 ­percent of teenagers spend more time with friends online than they do face to face. But it’s not just internet addiction that stops young people going out. 

Another interviewee points out that in his father’s generation young people were allowed to “wander through hill and dale”. Now although many teenagers would rather meet face to face, they communicate electronically because there is nothing to do or they aren’t allowed out.

The film’s scariest moments show the reality of “the cloud”. It’s not light and airy, but physical cables and servers, under the control of corporate multinationals. 

For firms such as Facebook and Google, the point of encouraging people to use their internet services is to gather information that can be sold. As one interviewee said, the firms are engaged in “obfuscation of what the exchange is”. They appear to offer users something for free when in fact they are offering something for money elsewhere. 

Many ordinary people use the internet to develop relationships and freedoms that otherwise aren’t possible. But the structure of the web is now controlled by companies using it as a vast experiment in how to extract money from people.

In the closing credits the film thanks the many teenagers who agreed to be interviewed, but notes that all the major firms refused to take part.

InRealLife probably asks too many questions and raises too many opinions to deal with in the time it has. Its spoken questions tend towards the apocalyptic, but its examples show more positive aspects.

It points out that internet users don’t just see cyberspace as dark and threatening—“Young people try and carve out any space for them to have control”. It concludes with the touching story of Tom, a gay teenager, who found it easier to come out online where he also met his boyfriend. 

The film follows the adventure of their first physical meeting after months of online dating. 

InRealLife is directed by Beeban Kidron. On release now.

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