When a culture is swimming in social media, it can be difficult to see the water. Documentary film “Social Animals,” set to be released March 12 on Netflix, provides a new take on the role of technology and social platforms through the eyes of three very different American teenagers.
As a partner in Los Angeles ad agency Conscious Minds, Jonathan Ignatius Green has long worked with influential brands to craft their messaging on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and other online channels. The firm counts Coca-Cola, Nike, Toyota, and Uber as clients, with campaigns driving millions in sales.
But what are the larger societal effects of Instagram? Carving out time in the midst of top-dollar work, Green and his team spent three years on a passion project exploring this question. He read in-depth and began to interview academic experts. Yet once his team got to know a few Instagrammers racking up followers and profits on the platform, a realization hit them.
“Teens are the experts,” says Green in an interview from his L.A. office. “They are the content creators other people are consuming. We’d rather hear from them firsthand, then let people discern, digest, and reflect on what they’ve seen—and form their own points of view.”
The resultant film “Social Animals” has spent a year on the festival circuit, including rave reviews from mainstream outlets and at last year’s South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Showing three teens’ varied journeys with Instagram, the 90-minute doc remains even-handed as it examines the power of online social interactions.
“We set out to make a movie that didn’t have an agenda or an axe to grind,” says Green. “Hopefully, it will encourage conversation around something that is very complicated. Social media can be used for positive effect—and it can have a lot of costs.”
Where Current Trends Began
The invention of the camera phone foreshadowed tectonic shifts to come in modern personal media habits.
French entrepreneur Philippe Kahn jerry-rigged the first such image capture in 1997, to announce the birth of his daughter from the hospital. The true-life story was so compelling, Green intended to open his documentary with a dramatic vignette on how it came to be
“We spent a lot of time and resources filming this recreation of that strange day in the hospital with Khan and his wife,” says Green. “In the editing room, we deciding this segment didn’t belong in the movie we ended up making. We released it as a short film, which got its own recognition.” It became a teaser of sorts for the narrative they set out to tell.
In “Social Animals,” the filmmakers concentrate solely on Instagram over other platforms. They assert that Twitter is not visual enough for a film, Facebook too complex, and Snapchat content (mostly) not archived. “Instagram is just this simple idea: photos, captions, scrolling through, and following,” explains Green. “It’s the most distilled version or expression of social media.”
Viewers get to know three diverse teens using Instagram for varying purposes. California freshman Kaylyn Slevin leverages her fashion sense and followers to launch a clothing line. Daredevil photographer Humza Deas scales New York City landmarks to get stunning photos. And Emma Crockett of Ohio finds social media the ticket to peer acceptance when she joins—until, after a painful breakup, she spirals into depression and self-harm.
“Since you have access to Instagram 24/7, I couldn’t get away from it as much as I wanted to,” says Crockett, now in her early 20s, in a phone interview. “It’s always there on your phone. That’s probably what pushed me to do what I did.”
Her story underlines why fears of technology abound. In the recent book “The Tech-Wise Family,” Barna Group research reveals 65 percent of parents consider social media and tech devices the top reason why parenting has become more difficult than in generations past. Meanwhile, a report last week from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children presents evidence that Instagram has become a platform for child abusers.
While tackling heavy topics, “Social Animals” observes rather than critiques trends—showing how quickly modern life is changing and how to harness social tools that can easily get out of hand.
Power, Beauty, and Profit Potential
The team behind “Social Animals” is not the first to explore the wild frontiers of today’s online world. Released last year by Netflix, “The American Meme” stars Paris Hilton, DJ Khaled, and other 21st century A-listers who have come into vast fame and fortune from social media.
With quick cuts from an endless string of nightclubs and ritzy locations, the music video-style “Meme” doc spotlights the party lifestyle of attractive, wealthy online celebrities. Only after scenes of booze-fueled bar-hopping, topless women, and staged photo shoots does it delve into what they experience once the buzz wears off.
By contrast, “Social Animals” seems to find explicit content unnecessary to telling its story. With a cinematic approach, it establishes the real-world environs of its teen subjects—coastal California, urban NYC, and rural Ohio—then intercuts throughout. Wide-angle drone shots and image montages are visually stunning, as one would expect from Nike’s ad agency.
Aligned closer in spirit with the new doc, coming-of-age drama “Eighth Grade” won top honors from the Writers Guild of America only weeks ago. In that scripted drama, a middle schooler seeks attention through social media and ultimately pulls away from her quest for likes and followers.
While some may find that fictional story easy to dismiss, brutally honest “Social Animals” becomes irrefutable as it progresses. Propelled by the teens’ firsthand footage edited in, the allure and intimacy of the endless photo scroll goes beyond an intellectually known trend.
“From morning to night, it’s part of their experience of connection,” observes Green. “Hanging out with them, hearing their stories, watching them engage with peers, it became less a factoid and more of feeling how integrated this technology is into their lives.” The delight of sharing moments from sporting events, prom, and the like illustrates why families enjoy social media.
Green found the two entrepreneurial Instagram personalities through their notoriety. Training his camera in urban settings with distinctive light and depth, Deas has risen to prominence in recent years. The film chronicles his clashes with other underground photographers, along with his first Queens photo gallery showcase.
Meanwhile, SoCal beauty pageant star Slevin struggles to block unwanted advances online even as her photo poses become more provocative. Completing the narrative with the downsides of Instagram took Green longer. After telling friends of his film, he finally heard from an Ohio youth pastor about his daughter, Emma. Despite her maturity, losing a boyfriend followed by cyberbullying from peers led her into depression.
In a tragically common response, Crockett attempted suicide. “That experience had only happened a couple of months before we filmed with her,” says Green. “She was willing to be vulnerable with us and share her story candidly.”
Bullying In One Click
The quagmire of high school, with its social cliques and peer pressures heightened by adolescent hormones, is nothing new. Only now, peer interactions continue every moment as teens have the world in their pockets. “Social Animals” teases out why this is a distinct hazard.
“I was socially awkward and very fresh to this,” says Crockett, whose story begins as she enters a private Christian high school and, concurrently, downloads the Instagram app. “I constantly compared myself to others: to other girls, to my friends, and what they were doing.”
Direct-messaging on Instagram and other platforms opens up potential connection with anyone. Teens sending explicit photos to one another, or “sexting,” has become commonplace. Discussing demands from boys she has messaged, Crockett confesses to it herself in one scene.
“It was super embarrassing to say that in the film,” admits Crockett. “But I wanted to make it real. It’s happening to people who probably feel bad about themselves. I hope especially girls would feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, she said that on a movie. Maybe I can get over this, like she did.’”
A relationship provides personal affirmation as Crockett and her boyfriend enjoy each other’s company. But innocence turns to suspicion as other girls feature in his photo feed, and soon the two break it off. Peers turn against her, and the school newcomer finds herself alone.
“Many of the people who bullied me through social media were my best friends, which is sad,” says Crockett. “They didn’t have to say it to my face. With the click of a button, you can say the meanest and most derogatory words you can come up with—it’s the easiest thing to do.”
According to a newly published digest by the Cyberbullying Research Center, 28 percent of students have been victims of cyberbullying at some point in their lives. Such harassment usually occurs on social media platforms, and the implications cannot be taken lightly.
Coming Back From the Breaking Point
A wave of peer threats, rumors, and messages prodding self-harm comes at the sophomore. Crockett takes the bait.
The film recreates the fateful scene of an ambulance arriving at her suburban home, after her sister saw what transpired in an upstairs bedroom and called 911. First responders revive the teen girl and rush her to the hospital, with her parents horrified they knew little of her emotional state at the time.
“It all became too much for me,” recalls Crockett. “Everything from feeling ashamed of myself to feeling like I lost my friends, to feeling like this guy that I like is liking somebody else. It started to corrupt my mental health, and I couldn’t take it anymore.”
Days later, Crockett was released to a nearby outpatient facility. She and other teens undergo a detox process with art therapy, group discussion, and outdoor activities. Yet even during that searching time, friends of an ex-boyfriend persisted in harassment. “After the incident, they would text me from a different number and would say terrible, terrible things,” says Crockett. “I would block them, then I would cry and react and adapt.”
The film displays Instagram conversations in natural, unobtrusive ways to serve the story. “All of it is emotionally real, and the lion’s share of it is actual words,” notes Green about on-screen text. “When Humza is getting death threats, and in bullying scenes with Emma, we tracked down some actual comment threads and depict on-screen verbatim what was said.”
During her recovery, Crockett notes that four close friends proved invaluable. “They really protected me, helping me steer clear of anybody who would make me want to harm myself again,” says Crockett. “I lost a lot of people along the way.”
Speaking Into the Cultural Conversation
Unflinching honesty about difficult challenges distinguishes “Social Animals” from similar films. Yet it spends equal time reveling in wonder at shared experiences enabled by online platforms, whether used to protest dictatorial regimes or entertain the masses as with Fail Army.
Green hopes his entertaining movie on a divisive topic will spark thoughtful dialogue beyond film festivals. A father himself, he believes the most important conversation needed is between high school students and parents.
“It won’t be parents saying: ‘You need to watch this!’ Then it’s a bunch of experts droning on about how bad social media is,” he says. “Rather, you see the fun and positive sides of Instagram. Teenagers relate to it, and their parents can feel empathy for the world in which they live and some of the challenges there.”
“Social Animals” does not resolve the many questions of privacy, narcissism, addiction, suicide prevention, normalization of porn, or other potential pitfalls of social media. Yet it provides a new touchpoint for cultural discussion, notably the film’s firsthand insights into Generation Z.
Crockett has even rejoined Instagram, though now posting about her interests rather than all-too-personal photos. “What I found from my experience is, Instagram isn’t life,” says Crockett. “For your own health, surround yourself with people who love you and you feel confident with—friends and family.”
Declining to prescribe specific boundaries all families should set with social media, Green offers one principle learned from his years of research and filming on these complex issues:
“If there is any advice that is global, it is: don’t let it run itself,” he says. “Don’t skip being thoughtful about it or skip being in an engaged conversation with your teenager about it. Like anything else, if it goes unexamined, it is probably going to go awry.”