‘It’s not moral panic, it’s reality’: Todd Sampson documentary interrogates internet’s toxic influence

‘It’s not moral panic, it’s reality’: Todd Sampson documentary interrogates internet’s toxic influence

Todd Sampson’s documentary about how the internet is a giant, unregulated psychological experiment that is changing us is not alarmist, it’s just reality, the former advertising executive says.

In his two-part film, Mirror Mirror: Love & Hate, Sampson shows us first hand the mind-altering power of technology; a technology so intoxicating children choose the online world over the real world and a grown man falls in love with a customised chatbot.

“Generally people who make the claim that it’s moral panic are people without children,” Sampson says ahead of the show airing over two nights on Channel Ten in Australia. “Because if you have kids you realise it is not moral panic, it is just reality.”

Mirror Mirror is timely, coming as it does the week after the UK coroner found social media contributed to a teenager’s death, leading a depressed girl down a dark path of disturbing content, and has similar themes to the 2020 Netflix documentaryThe Social Dilemma.

“I no longer see it as moral panic or alarm but as an important use of my voice,” Sampson says. “I understand people that maybe don’t have kids or people that are really into the tech companies won’t like it. But I just presented the range of stories, starting with a 14-month-old all the way up to a 65-year-old.”

His passion for the material is infectious and he has tracked down some extraordinary personal stories which certainly ram home the message and make the case for more regulation.

A former chief executive of the ad agency Leo Burnett Australia, Sampson has turned his back on the industry and embraced a career in television. He has produced and presented a series of films including Life on the Line, Body Hack and Redesign My Brain, as well as the first series of Mirror Mirror which focused on body image.

His love of television was sparked back in 2008 when he appeared as a panellist on Wil Anderson’s advertising program, then known as The Gruen Transfer.

Sampson presents some alarming statistics: according to the eSafety commissioner there has been a 245% increase in the nonconsensual sharing of intimate images and videos in the last three years; 70% of children have experienced hate speech online and teens who spend more than three hours a day on devices are 35% more likely to be at risk of suicide.

“I think that we are on the cusp of a global crisis,” Sampson says. “So you can call that alarmist. I just call that 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 a humiliating one. Like the young woman who was catfished into believing she was in love with a man she had never met who convinced her to send him intimate photographs before disappearing.

“You could hear my voice cracking because I’m like, ‘Oh, no, she’s been emotionally and psychologically destroyed because of this system that we’ve allowed [it] to happen,’” Sampson says.

Or the guy who has invested time and money in a relationship with an avatar, Anastacia, whom he has designed to act like his ideal girlfriend. Sampson appears to believe him when he says he loves her and prefers her to a human girlfriend. “I always enter an interview without cynicism or without agenda,” Sampson says. “The remarkable thing about him is he is genuinely in love with a virtual bot because from the brain’s perspective, he’s getting the same serotonin hits, he’s getting the same oxytocin.”

Sampson says research now shows that it isn’t screen time per se that is harmful to the mental health of young people but the “like” button, first introduced in 2009.

“That’s where they think the fundamental problem is,” Sampson says. “We’re not meant to get this much positive or negative feedback, but kids crave it online now and they crave it from strangers.”

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