Film trivializes realities of cyberbullying

Usually, innovation is a good thing, especially in modes of entertainment that can quickly become tired and banal. That being said, not all innovation is necessarily good innovation. A few weekends ago, I made the mistake of seeing “Unfriended” at the recommendation of a good friend. After being inundated with ads for the movie on YouTube and Pandora and reading some surprisingly good reviews for a horror film, I was excited to see something that looked different. Because the horror genre has been plagued with overused tropes and remakes in recent years, this movie seemed even more appealing to those who like a good scare every once in a while.

While television shows have toyed with the idea of “shooting” through a computer screen (“Web Therapy” is entirely in this format, and a recent episode of “Modern Family” experimented with it) and have been interesting, watching someone’s computer screen for over an hour is, to put it plainly, boring. Although I am no film expert, I find it shocking and strange that this movie has met a moderate amount of acclaim and has been called a forerunner as well as a nuanced critique of our technology-loving society.

Several commentators on this movie have pointed out that horror films play on our biggest fears; a praiseful Guardian piece noted that “More than any other genre, horror acts as a barometer on exterior fears. The bogeymen of our times are stumbling ciphers for outside concerns” (“I know who you Skyped last summer: how Hollywood plays on our darkest digital fears,” 04.23.15). While it is true that as we put more and more of our lives on the internet, the more we have to fear about it, a teen horror flick is absolutely the wrong way to address the threat of technology.

The more reviews I read, the more I come across this idea that “Unfriended” serves as a sort of social commentary, critiquing our reliance on technology and social networking and showing us what might happen if we continue this way. I think that this commentary is both necessary and do-able, but I do not think that this comes through in a wacky, low-quality ghost story that relies on technology more as a gimmick than as a way of conveying a fault in our society.

The issue that lies at the premise of the film is a valid concern in our world today– cyberbullying is a real and serious problem with which many of us raised in the “Information Age,” sadly, have dealt. It is a truly disturbing and endemic problem, and one that should be addressed with teens in a way that will engage them (i.e. not health class PSAs à la ’80s after school Specials), not turn them off to the subject by portraying it as a ridiculous joke.

While I will concede that I am not easily scared, I was not the only one in the theater who was overcome with laughter rather than fear each time one of the bullies was taught a lesson by the phantom ex-friend. Looking back on that, I really wonder what the filmmakers were thinking teens’ reactions would be to deaths via blender and Conair You Curl curling iron viewed through grainy Skype windows.

It seems as though the filmmakers were attempting to relate to teens through this method, but I had one question about 10 minutes in: If all these kids live in the same town, why are they in a five-person Skype instead of actually hanging out? Never in my life have I Skyped with my friends while we were all at home, and even now that we are all apart I have never been in a conversation with more than three people.

This, I believe, is one of the biggest flaws in this type of movie– we all use technology differently, and because of that, there is really no universal experience. Perhaps some teens do regularly have five-person Skype calls with their friends from school, but I don’t buy it.

Young people, it seems to me, are more likely to use FaceTime to make video calls, which are one-on-one conversations, if they use Apple devices. Those of us who have ever had the misfortune of being in a group chat will know that these communications can quickly become raucous, and assumedly this is only maximized when there are real voices (and unbelievably poor Wi-Fi) involved. While these much older critics and filmmakers think that this is how teenagers hang out nowadays, this only signifies a generational misunderstanding and an obsession with how young people connect through technology. In this, our relationship with technology is so blown out of proportion that it, like many other aspects of the film, appears ludicrous and overtly fictional. Therefore, the message is further garbled in this digital cacophony that fails at mirroring any real life experience.

The directors of this movie were obviously intent on showing us the dangers of an increasingly connected world. An NPR article lauded its ability to “manage a message about the dangers of cyberbullying that’s like a less preachy version of the 2011 documentary ‘Bully’” (“The Internet Of Spooky Things Is Alive In ‘Unfriended,’” 04.16.15), but as a member of the targeted demographic who has experienced cyberbullying, I found it to be anything but educational or morally inspiring, and it definitely trivialized the issue. Not even taking into account the fact that the characters reacted to losing a friend as they would to losing a file, this comment falls flat because the film totally neglects to address why the teens would bully their friend in the first place.

This film may have been more poignant had it not taken place inside of a computer, but also if the teens had not been faced with a cyber ghost but instead with something more realistic, like the legal implications of such a crime. Cyberbullying, like any other type of bullying, is something that can be discussed through film, but only if the filmmakers take the time and effort to understand the issue and convey it in a way that shows real consequences, not fantastical ones.

 

—Sophia Burns ’18 is a student at Vassar College.

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