Todd Sampson’s documentary about how the internet is a giant, unregulated psychological experiment that changes us isn’t alarmist, it’s just reality, says the former ad executive.
In his two-part film, Mirror Mirror: Love & Hate, Sampson shows us firsthand the mind-altering power of technology; technology so intoxicating that children choose the online world over the real world and an adult falls in love with a personalized chatbot.
“Usually the people who say it’s moral panic are people without children,” Sampson said before the show aired for two nights on Australia’s Channel Ten. “Because if you have kids, you realize it’s not moral panic, it’s just reality.”
Mirror Mirror comes at a good time, as it does the week after Britain’s coroner discovered social media contributed to the death of a teenager, leading a depressed girl down a dark path of disturbing content, and has themes similar to the 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.
“I don’t see it as panic or moral alarm anymore, but as an important use of my voice,” Sampson says. “I understand that people who maybe don’t have kids or really like tech companies won’t like this. But I just presented the range of stories, starting with a 14-month-old child up to a 65-year-old man.
His passion for hardware is contagious and he’s found some amazing personal stories that certainly get the message across and make the case for more regulation.
A former managing director of advertising agency Leo Burnett Australia, Sampson turned his back on the industry and embraced a career in television. He produced and presented a series of films including Life on the Line, Body Hack and Redesign My Brain, as well as the first Mirror Mirror series focusing on body image.
His love of television was sparked in 2008 when he appeared as a panelist on Wil Anderson’s commercial program, then known as The Gruen Transfer.
Sampson presents alarming statistics: According to the Electronic Safety Commissioner, there has been a 245% increase in the non-consensual sharing of intimate images and videos in the past three years; 70% of children have been victims of hate speech online and teenagers who spend more than three hours a day on devices are 35% more likely to be at risk of suicide.
“I think we’re on the cusp of a global crisis,” Sampson says. “So you can call it alarmist. I call it reality. Is the film a warning? Yes.”
Sampson is an empathetic interviewer, allowing his subjects to open up on camera even when their online experience is humiliating. Like the young woman who was fooled by the belief that she was in love with a man she had never met and who convinced her to send him intimate photos before disappearing.
“You could hear my voice crack because I was like, ‘Oh, no, she was emotionally and psychologically destroyed because of this system that we let happen,'” Sampson said.
Or the guy who invested time and money into a relationship with an avatar, Anastacia, who he designed to act as his ideal girlfriend. Sampson seems to believe her when he says he loves her and prefers her to a human girlfriend. “I always go into an interview without cynicism or without an agenda,” Sampson says. “What’s remarkable about him is that he’s really in love with a virtual bot because from a brain perspective, he’s getting the same serotonin hits, he’s getting the same oxytocin.”
Sampson says research now shows it’s not screen time per se that’s harmful to young people’s mental health, but the “Like” button, first introduced in 2009.
“That’s where they think the root problem is,” Sampson says. “We’re not supposed to get as much positive or negative feedback, but kids are craving it online now and they’re craving it from strangers.”
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