Scilla Andreen: An Empathetic Filmmaker Starting Conversations Around the World

December 18, 2019 Updated: January 2, 2020

When Scilla Andreen set out to make a movie about the effects of social media usage, people imagined an exposé on the evils of these big platforms or governments.

In her research, Andreen did look into how developers are designing apps without regard for human health, and the role that government might play and the First Amendment rights it might curtail. But she decided not to focus on any of that.

Are you using technology, or is technology using you? That’s a question people are asking as the negative effects of social media are revealed. However, rather than trying to determine who to blame, Andreen is looking for solutions.

Scilla Andreen
Filmmaker Scilla Andreen. (IndieFlix)

“I’ve gone into it all, I looked at it and I just thought, well, here’s the power, the hope—that when we realize that as individual human beings, regardless of color or education or socioeconomic background, we have power,” she said.

At the end of the day, you get to decide how to use your phone. “I want to empower people to make decisions,” she said.

A poster of Andreen’s “Like.” (IndieFlix)

“The reason there’s quinoa and kale on regular grocery store shelves is because people said, ‘We want healthy food on every grocery store shelf.’ Not just a co-op or something far away. So, we as people have a lot of power. And if we use that power, with our voice, with our actions, and with our wallets, I think we can affect change way more quickly than with government and through corporations.

“We need context, we need information and we need an action item. We need a path forward, that is free that we can do for ourselves to model to help ourselves and then we can go and help others.”

Andreen, the CEO of IndieFlix, directed “Like,” which came out earlier this year. In it, she interviews children as young as 8 (when they get their first smartphone), older teens from all over the world, and experts in neuroscience, psychology, technology, market research, mental health, and other areas.

In the process of making “Like,” it was the adults’ own phone addictions that came to light. (IndieFlix)

“It’s funny, I went into it thinking that I’m going to interview all these kids and they’re going to tell us all these wonderful stories and going to get such insight into what’s going on with this generation,” she said. “What I quickly learned was that was actually quite boring.

“All the kids said the exact same thing: ‘It’s a chore, it’s a job, but if I don’t do it, I’m out of touch, I will lose connection with my friends.’ It’s their water cooler.” Andreen, a mother of six, is frequently on her phone herself.

Instead, the process of making the film revealed adults’ own phone addictions. While the youngest generation might be so dependent on their phones they don’t know where to look in face-to-face conversations, their parents modeled that unending screen time themselves.

The film is currently screening around the world, often hosted in schools, in settings where people can have a conversation about “Like” afterward.

“It’s at almost 900 screenings now in 11 countries, and it’s just growing,” Andreen said.

People like that Andreen’s film isn’t saying to take away anyone’s smartphone, and it’s not slamming social media. Instead, it draws attention to our own behaviors and what can be done do to regain the autonomy we might have given away inadvertently to technology.

“People need to use these tools to enhance the human condition to help each other to be kind,” she said.

Delving Into Mental Health

The idea of “Like” came naturally to Andreen in the process of working on her previous film, “Angst,” which is about anxiety and mental health.

“A woman who worked with me and knew that I made movies and took them out into the community—we literally go out into thousands of schools and communities and corporations in 75 countries—said, ‘You need to make a movie about mental health,'” she said.

Andreen wasn’t sure; her movies are for ages 10 and up, and are screened at many schools; mental health seemed such a heavy topic. Plus, she didn’t know anything about it, since her niche was in lighter and empowering topics.

Dimitri Christakis, featured in “Like,” is the director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. He is the author of “The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids.” (IndieFlix)

“She kept asking me for a year, and I would see her every week. And then I learned on New Year’s Day, she died by suicide. She was a mom with two kids,” she said.

Andreen has always felt she was able to put herself in people’s shoes, but she had no clue what was going on with her colleague—or what to make of all those stories of kids who had just gotten magnificent scholarships or won some award who are committing suicide. She needed to understand.

“And I just thought: I’m going to make a movie about mental health, I have no idea what that looks like, but it’s going to be filled with hope, and going to help us have a better understanding of what’s going on,” she said.

“Why is it that an eighth-grader is dying by suicide? What’s happening?” she asked. She didn’t care if the movie was heavy and no one would watch it. “I really had no choice, it was the only way to channel my grief and I was also really curious—I had to know what was going on.”

She interviewed parents, children, educators, doctors, and brain scientists, and realized she could make this topic one that wasn’t scary for people. And it’s hard to talk about, because “the stigma, the shame, the fear—there’s so much fear around it because it’s life and death.”

She also realized that she is herself a textbook case of social anxiety. She had grown up inventing games to play with herself to hack her brain and turn something that might have crippled her into a superpower.

“When you start to understand and hear about the brain science, it’s fascinating and there’s so much hope there,” she said. “That hope gave me a ton of energy, focus, and direction—getting information out there for people to know that there are wonderful tools that are free.

“You know, anxiety is 100 percent treatable, not 100 percent curable, but it is 100 percent treatable to the extent that it can become your superpower. You can turn it into something really great for you.”

It was hard to screen the film at first. The schools Andreen had worked with were interested but worried they didn’t have the resources to have the conversations the film would generate. After a few months, it caught on.

“We’ve had over 4,000 community screenings in 69 countries. It’s subtitled into seven languages and dubbed in Spanish,” she said. It’s also going to be used as part of the curriculum for training teachers and mental health professionals in various communities.

“It has become an incredible tool to comfortably open up a conversation in a community on a mass scale. It’s almost like community therapy.”

Kids Lunch WIS
Andreen has talked to many kids who are interested in having face to face conversations but don’t know where to start. (IndieFlix)

Andreen says it’s been like holding up a big mirror to look into, and realize that it is normal to have anxiety. Life has never not been stressful, and we should learn ways to cope with that, she says.

She’s also written a book called “The Creative Coping Toolkit” that includes many of the little hacks she’s used herself (rhythmic snapping, reciting the months backward, holding her trusty smooth skipping stone in hand) to help families have these conversations, without even making it about “mental health,” because it’s really about creating connections.

Something that comes up frequently is whether anxiety is really on the rise, or if we’ve just gotten better at identifying it. Andreen, who thinks it’s a bit of both, says much of the rise has a lot to do with our screens.

“It came up so much, literally in every interview, that people felt like the reason there was a spike in anxiety because of social media was because there was so much meanness and cyberbullying taking place on social media,” she said.

“Angst” led directly to “Like,” and Andreen’s trilogy of succinct and impactful hour-long films will be completed in early 2020 with “The Upstanders,” a film about resilience and bullying.

All of these issues are connected.

Why Are We Mean Online?

It began with wanting to answer the very question of why are people being mean online?

“Everyone goes, ‘Well, because there’s anonymity,’ but I don’t believe that people are inherently so mean,” Andreen said. “Something else is at play here.”

She knew first-hand that social media could be a power for good. When her daughter was diagnosed with cervical cancer and she and her husband couldn’t afford a clinical trial, they turned to crowdfunding and received an outpouring of love and support at a very difficult time.

So, she went back to all the experts, parents and kids, and asked, “Why would you participate in something so cruel and mean to another person?”

“Some of them are just, ‘I’m afraid to stand up, because then I’m afraid I might become bullied,’ or ‘I don’t know why I did it. I just did it. I wasn’t thinking,'” she said. “Then there’s, ‘I did it because I see my parents doing it’, ‘I see people being online being so mean and cruel to each other. It’s all over the news.’ And then you start to realize when you break it down, that it’s really about resilience.

Max Stossel
Max Stossel, the narrator of “Like,” is the head of education for the Center for Humane Technology. (IndieFlix)

“It’s about connection, about belonging. It’s about, do you matter? Are you heard?

“If a kid is going to go and shoot up their peers, do they feel like they belong? Do they feel like they matter? Do they feel like anyone cares? Or do they feel invisible? Are they so disconnected? Are they probably sleep-deprived? Are they unloved? Do they have no connection with self?”

While she was putting together the film, a study came out identifying the youngest generation as the loneliest people on the planet—even more than seniors.

“Then, you realize, OK, let’s look at the effects on the brain from all of this. The fact that they’re lonely puts them in a state of fight or flight, they’re not getting sleep, they’re not getting nutrition, they’re not going outside and getting sunshine on their face, or just breathing fresh air,” Andreen said.

These are things that feed our brains and boost our immune systems and give us a sense of well-being. That deficit, plus the 24-hour cycle of breaking news, pseudo-urgent notifications, and LEDs makes for a poor state of being, she said.

“We have to get back home; we have to nurture our basic physiological needs. And then we need touch, we need connection. We need human beings around us who look at us,” she said. “We need actual, real human contact again. And it’s fascinating to me, we can actually get there really fast. But it’s going to take some effort of getting time with each other, which is for younger people, really uncomfortable.”

Andreen has talked to many kids, and she’s asked if they would like if school had a class on how to have a real conversation without devices?

“They were like, ‘Oh, that would be really great.'” Then she asked what needs to be taught. They told her: “Well, where do we look? What do we do with our hands? Where does the phone have to go?”

She said: “It’s like, really? These are ninth- and 10th-graders, and fifth-graders. Their biggest thing is where to look.”

Andreen’s hope with her films is that we won’t just value but will seek out and build human connections.

“My hope is that people will want to self-regulate because they’re inspired to do so—because they see the benefits of it. And that we actually start connecting with each other in real-time, like physically real face time,” she said. “The chemical release on the brain when you actually look into someone else’s—a human being’s—eyes, it creates a feeling of wellness, it boosts your immune system. You don’t get that from looking at your phone.

“I feel like if people started to connect more in real life—just a few hours more a day—I feel like the world will change.

“Let’s have a conversation about all this stuff. Because when we talk about it, we can find ways to create balance in our lives.”

Action Items

As most of us know, and as “Like” explains, the developers of most apps and social media platforms are trying to increase the time you spend on their platforms. It doesn’t matter to them how old you are or if you’re sleeping or eating or moving around; they are trying to increase their numbers.

Knowing that isn’t enough, Andreen says. Some action items are needed to create balance.

For instance, looking at your colorful phone makes your brain light up—because it’s designed to—in some cases, it’s the same parts of your brain that light up when you see someone you love. But if your phone is in grayscale, remarkably, the brain doesn’t light up.

“Honestly, when my phone’s on grayscale, I can’t stand it. I don’t even want to look at my phone,” Andreen said. She says it’s to the point that if she wants to use it, she has to turn off the grayscale.

“I think every Q&A I’ve ever gone to, I ask people, ‘Raise your hand if you use your cellphone as an alarm clock.’ I would say 95 percent of the audience raises their hand, and that is kids to grownups.

“And so when you realize that when you first wake up in the morning and your cellphone goes off and you look at it to turn off your alarm, that beautiful color on your phone immediately stimulates your brain, and chemicals start releasing in the brain that tells the brain this thing that’s in your hand, that you’re looking at to turn off the alarm, is way more interesting than anything in your room.

“More interesting than the person next to you, or what’s outside the window and the weather, or the art on the walls, or how about just your feelings. The things you’re ruminating on thinking and feeling about what happened yesterday or the day.”

But if your phone is in grayscale, it doesn’t have the same effect. Better yet, Andreen says, get an analog alarm clock.

“[That is] hugely powerful and impactful to change the start of your day, which is sometimes the only time we get a few minutes with ourselves, to connect with ourselves, so we can effectively connect with others and navigate our day,” she said.

Another action item is to turn off all notifications that come from anything but another human being, such as sales or dating apps or social media telling you to check, check, check.

“You can check those when you feel like checking, not because it’s telling you,” she said. “Those minor adjustments have a huge impact. It’s like taking a rock out of your shoe.”

Creating Community

Andreen originally went to school for political science.

“And I fell in love with a director and dropped out,” she said.

She started working in commercials and then, in television in costume design. Later, she started producing and directing short films, and, eventually, feature films. Once on the film festival circuit, she realized there were thousands of great films that no one would ever see, because only a tiny slice of what’s produced each year gets distribution from Hollywood.

“So I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to start the company that will be a home for all the filmmakers that I’m meeting and all their stories that Hollywood isn’t picking up,” she said.

She and her best friend started IndieFlix, as a DVD on-demand company in 2005, and within a few months, she was thrown headfirst into learning how to build and run a business. It grew to a full-fledged business, with more than 12,000 titles with global streaming rights.

Eventually, the time came when Andreen realized she didn’t want to watch any of the movies on her own platform; while she had worked very hard, the business was a far cry from the creative filmmaking roots that inspired it.

“And a little film called ‘Finding Kind’ crossed my desk,” she said.

Andreen had been badly bullied as a young girl and had vowed that if she ever had the chance to help prevent someone else from being bullied, she would go to great lengths to do so. She had a very personal interest in helping get the film funded and distributed—but not on her streaming platform. She wanted to bring it directly into schools.

“I think it should be screened in schools, where kids can witness each other watching the film and have a conversation,” she said. “So, we took it to my daughter’s school and showed it to the sixth and seventh graders, and it has had an incredibly powerful impact on that community—word spread, all on its own. That film is still offline. It’s going on 10 years and has screened in 50 different countries.”

It showed Andreen a new way that film could affect the world, which she had set out to do with IndieFlix in the beginning. She deciding to stick with the offline-only method of distribution, at a time when streaming was quickly gaining ground.

Now, a decade later, that approach has proven to be the right one.

“Sometimes, we have 60 people, sometimes, we have 800 people in an auditorium. It is palatable—the energy in the room is so powerful, it’s nothing like you’d feel except in rare instances in a typical movie theater,” she said. “The conversations, the emotion, the connection, the solidarity—it’s an energy that’s hard to explain and hard for people to imagine unless they’ve experienced it.

“We’ve reached millions of people and they’re all conversations that are had offline.” And the beautiful thing is that these conversations start at the screenings, but they snowball into our daily lives, at the line at the grocery store or in the carpool lane or soccer practice, she says.

“We’re building community with these films. And mostly I’ve just followed my heart and what felt right. Because, for me, when I follow my heart and do what I’m naturally passionate about, even if it doesn’t make sense to others, I seem to have boundless energy to do it. And an absolute clarity.”