New Reality Show Gets Inside Teens’ Heads — and Their Smartphones

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Screenshot from 'The Secret Life of Students'
Screenshot from 'The Secret Life of Students'

“Ever wanted to look inside someone else’s phone?”

That, in a sentence, is the vaguely creepy but admittedly attention-getting pitch for a BBC4 reality show called The Secret Life of Students. The premise is that merely watching young people spill their guts on camera isn’t enough. We need to see their social-media and text expression, too!

Like many reality shows, this one basically follows young people around with cameras.

The twist here is that this series’ producers also figured a way to monitor and capture the text messages and social media posts of its subjects. Why? Because, says the teaser: “They hold our innermost thoughts. Our secrets. And our gossip.”

As the clip above suggests, the way this plays out narratively is that images of texts and Facebook posts are layered over the video, theoretically giving us a deeper understanding of the subjects (basically young people transitioning to college life) by way of examining not just what they say with their mouths — but what they say with their thumbs.

One amusing example: We watch a young woman whose Facebook presence suggests that she’s a big reader, as she struggles to actually read. Part of the problem, evidently, is that she’s engaged in nonstop text banter about how she’s finding it difficult to read. (Insert your own finger-wag at youngsters here.)

Reviewers of the show also invariably point to the young woman who Googled “Is Chlamydia permanent?” during the course of the show — a decision I imagine she will now reflect on for many years.

I’m not sure there’s a genuine narrative breakthrough here, but it appears that there is a technical one: The show’s producers, Raw TV, evidently devised custom software, preloaded onto the subjects’ phones, to capture all this digital material. (CJR has more background here.)

The pros and cons of this approach as applied to this project are apparent in this clip:

Sure, there’s a certain added richness to the expression of the story of young, long-distance romance. On the other hand, that expression falls well short of anything genuinely insightful, let alone new.

Still, the process is fascinating: Imagine a documentary juxtaposing the public comments of politicians with their private texts! But that’s a long shot, to say the least. Maybe there’s a middle ground some future documentarian will find — cleverly incorporating subjects’ digital expression into their verbal accounts.

Meanwhile, I guess we’ll just keep scrutinizing young people, forever marveling at their supposed willingness to be scrutinized, wagging our fingers.

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