menwomenchildrenNo one’s really sure who coined the term “social media,” but there’s a loose consensus that it came about almost 20 years ago, in and around AOL and the small but vital nexus of tech companies that were busy birthing the internet as we know it today. What no one seems to dispute is the idea that, with social media, something wholly new had been brought into the world, and that society would be changed by it essentially.

Which is probably only true if you think that slander, bullying, teenage anxiety, infidelity, pornography, and prostitution came into the world along with e-mail spam and illegal file sharing. To be sure, there are ways that the world of 2014 is different from that of 1994, but if we want to say that it’s worse and blame it on social media, the truth is that there’s simply more access to what has troubled us, and not that we’ve somehow invented new problems and vices.

I couldn’t help thinking about this while watching Men, Women & Children, the latest film from director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up In The Air,) a film explicitly about the “new world” created by social media and – perhaps not coincidentally – the biggest box office bomb of the season. Set in a typical American suburb, it’s the story of a quintet of families whose relationships are either strained or enabled through texting, gaming, Facebook, Tumblr, online porn or dating sites.

The moral centre of the story is a pair of teenagers. Tim is his school’s football star who, despairing about the meaning of life after his mother leaves his father, quits the team and burrows into Guild Wars, spending hundreds of hours in a fantasy world battling with and against “friends” he has never met. Brandy is afflicted with a mother whose paranoia about the new world of the internet means that her e-mails, chat records and browser history are under constant scrutiny, which means that she’s the only person we see in the whole film reading a book.

While Tim and Brandy carve a hole in their sullenness and form a tentative bond, everyone around them makes harmful or even catastrophic life decisions that inevitably involve some form of social media. Alison is an anorexic sophomore with a crush on a caddish boy who gets reinforcement for her eating disorder online; Hannah is a fellow cheerleader whose single mother thinks she’s enabling her daughter’s acting ambitions by running a website featuring photos of Hannah – some of which are privately commissioned by Hannah’s online “fans.”

Don and Helen are a couple who end up cheating on each other, aided by online escort services and, a website that’s done for adultery what Kijiji has done for clearing out your garage. Their son, Chris, has been so jaded by online porn that he’s become sexually dysfunctional in a way that was once unique to jaded aristocrats. The only vaguely healthy-looking adult relationship is that of Hannah’s mom and Tim’s dad, who end up bonding over their disdainful amusement at Brandy’s mom’s support group for parents similarly terrified of social media.

It’s a glum sort of melodrama, and as critics pointed out in countless pans of the film, the dramas seen behind the text bubbles, comment boxes, and URLs that pop up onscreen aren’t anything new: the overweening stage mom and her spoiled project, the naive girl taken advantage of by a heel, the prim parent moved to cruelty out of a misplaced sense of duty to her child, the teen sweethearts meeting in secret to escape wrathful family. Reitman has given the thinnest digital sheen to plots as old as afterschool specials, Hollywood “women’s pictures” and, well, Shakespeare.

There’s too much about social media to say in a single column, so I’ll be exploring it all a bit more in my next column, but there are two things Men, Women & Children put onscreen that show Hollywood making socially conservative points quite against their will. The first is the most tragic story in the film – that of Chris, emotionally crippled by a surplus of online porn before he’s old enough to vote, a condition apparently so common in Hollywood – a place where the line between porn and mainstream moviemaking has been unguarded for years – that it’s woven without question into a story about the quotidian middle class.

And finally there’s the last words we hear in Don and Helen’s story when, after discovering his wife’s infidelity and quietly confronting her about it, he simply asks her what she wants for breakfast, ignoring her halting attempt to talk it out. After nearly two hours of watching both young and old pitch their words, pictures and lives into a technologically-enabled maelstrom, he quietly suggests to his wife that, perhaps, we’d be better off if we didn’t share so much.