• I Am Gen Z – A Brilliant Documentary

    I’ve been to several documentary film festivals over the years. I’ve taken great pleasure in watching the fruits of talented film-makers’ labours writ large on cinema screens. But I’ve never before featured in such a film myself, until last night that is. Not only did I fulfil the lifetime ambition of seeing myself up on the big screen, but the film I featured in was extremely good. Like many presenters, I usually don’t enjoy watching my performances on TV; we are each, after all, our biggest critics. Yet, for the first time ever, this didn’t happen last night. I actually enjoyed watching my contribution because it was beautiful shot, I had been brilliantly directed by the incredible Liz Smith and my contributions had been edited so smoothly into a truly compelling narrative. There I sat, sipping an over-priced soft drink through a straw, noisily munching on popcorn, at a Rain Dance Film Festival screening of I Am Gen Z in the Genesis Cinema, Bethnel Green and found myself genuinely blown away.

    I am Gen Z – surviving in a world broken by tech

    The response of the audience during the Q&A I participated in at the end was even more surprising to me because, in my experience, they are often quite awkward affairs. But not this time. The response from the 200 strong audience was overwhelmingly positive. They all seemed to feel that the documentary had really captured the essence of an extremely important topic, one that worries people on a daily basis, but that feels somewhat futile in terms of our capacity to improve matters.

    There was effusive praise for the director and producer, but also for the creative use of music and graphics to help keep the audience tuned into the large volume of information conveyed by countless contributors. The regular use of footage from many young stars of the Tik Tok scene really helped to re-express the sentiments conveyed by the various experts and academics interviewed on both sides of the Atlantic, making it feel much more accessible and consolidating each point made by using personal testimonies to compliment the theoretical foundations.

    Much concern was expressed regarding what individuals can actually do to gain all the benefits that technology can offer while simultaneously evading the various traps and pitfalls lurking in the realms of social media over-engagement. I shared my own approach of strictly limiting when, where and how much I engage with various different aspects of technology. I check emails 2-3 times a day at a time of my choosing – I switch off all notifications. I don’t let any application on my smartphone send me notifications. My aim is to train the attentional network of my brain to favour the top-down processes that help me maintain my focus on whatever I am doing, rather than the bottom-up circuits that are designed to break it. I take the time to set up my smartphone so that tones and pop up notifications cannot regularly interrupt me by triggering the bottom-up process that would otherwise direct my attention elsewhere. If you regularly allow your devices to interrupt you with calls, texts and notifications, you are effectively allowing bottom-up (distraction) circuits to be strengthened, which will inevitably make sustained focus harder.

    I encourage people to, at the very least, observe and mull over (at length) the positive and negative impacts of technology. Once identified, the positives can be allowed to flourish, but it is vitally important to consider the negative impacts of technology and take steps to reduce their impact in your life. Take for instance the entrainment to behaviours that make tech companies more profit (e.g. techniques that encourage us to spend more and more time engaging with their products) but at the expense to you of displacing time you might otherwise have spent doing something that contributes more positively to your quality of life instead. This includes spending time outside in nature, taking regularly exercise, communicating with people face-to-face, playing sports, pursuing hobbies, etc (for more, see Sort Your Brain Out below).

    Other experts in the field, who contributed to the documentary and were also in the audience, mentioned the Gross National Happiness initiative in Bhutan that provides digital literacy classes from the age of 5 and the positive tech movement that uses applications to help people with ADHD better manage their symptoms. All of these suggestions have merit, but the important thing to remember is that the artificial intelligence that creates the algorithms that guide our digital experiences cares about one thing and one thing only: increasing our levels of engagement, regardless of whether it damages individuals (channelling users towards inappropriate content e.g. proana, self-harming sites, paedophilic content were all covered in this doc) or indeed societies as a whole (for more on this see my review of The Little Black Book of Data and Democracy).

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also regularly tweet neuroscience-related articles (@drjacklewis) and the second edition of Sort Your Brain Out, which came out a couple of months ago, is now available for purchase (online and in all good bookshops).

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