Imagine a world where teenagers spend their whole time seeking approval from others. Imagine if this approval was delivered via their mobilephones, leading them to go to even more desperate lengths in order to gain that approval. Imagine if this led to young people acting in more and more extreme ways, ostracising them from confused parents and concerned adults. I know, that took some flight of fancy, right? Welcome to the world of Nerve, the biggest teen film of 2016 thus far.
The film revolves around its titular game, ‘Nerve’, a sort of online truth-or-dare, minus the ‘truth’ aspect. People can choose to either be ‘players’ – allowing their lives to be put to the whim of the dare-deciding watchers - or ‘watchers’, or vicariously live through other people’s activities. You’re either a player or a watcher – it’s not a social choice, it’s an identity. The more outlandish or risky your dare, the more viewers you attract and the more money you win. Unsurprisingly, as the financial stakes rise and people’s self-worth gets tied up with their viewership, the dares get more dangerous, personal and divisive. The story revolves around teenage girl Vee and her night playing ‘Nerve’. Over the evening romance is kindled but friendships are shattered and lives are put at risk.
The film is hardly subtle in the points it’s trying to make (in fact one speech near the end is so on the nose that it might as well be in aid of Comic Relief, so heavy-handed that it ends up dragging its knuckles etc): young people get a whole heap of approval from what happens online and the anonymity of the internet allows people to act in ways they wouldn’t dream of doing offline.
Look, we can point to countless examples of this: the rise of cyber-bullying, the #CutForBieber phenomenon – the internet is dark and full of terrors. But in a world where more and more of young people’s existence has moved online, anything that shines some light into those dark corners is more than welcome. The film isn’t full of new ideas, but rather showcasing issues such as hiding behind an avatar, peer pressure, self-esteem and the real life impact of online actions.
In 2016, our self-esteem is crowd-sourced
What the film does well is show the knock-on effect that the internet has in real life; nothing that happens in the game exists in a vacuum – there are real-life consequences to virtual actions. The conclusion of the film shows how ridiculous it is to commit atrocities behind an avatar that we wouldn’t remotely consider doing face-to-face. Avatars don’t remove consequences, they don’t rid us of guilt. Nor do avatars truly allow us to become someone else; there’s always going to come a moment when the person you’ve created online clashes with the real you – the face behind the avatar. Those choices you’ve made online exist in glorious 3D once you’ve shut down your computer or mobile.
You could argue that the world depicted in the film is the logical endpoint of planking, ice bucket challenges and neck nominations. We know that for many young people, attention and approval are indelibly linked to self-worth. We know that young people will take down pictures if they don’t capture them from the right angle or get enough ‘likes’. We know that the internet, for all its good, has exacerbated issues that teenagers have always faced. But sometimes it takes the logical, at times farcical, end point to see the ridiculous world we live in. What the film wonderfully shows is how available we’ve made our view of ourselves – our self-worth is open to rent as we draw it entirely from others’ perceptions and preferences. In essence, we’ve crowd-sourced our self-esteem.
Perhaps the real question we need to ask ourselves as youth workers is where we’re getting our self-worth from. Is it also crowd-sourced? Does the success of our youth ministry make us feel better about ourselves? Do we find validation online? Does my own value come from subscriber numbers (I really, really hope not!)? While that might be a silly example, I’ve definitely deleted tweets or Facebook posts when they don’t get the overwhelmingly positive response I was hoping for. I may not be crowd-sourcing my self-esteem, but I certainly shape what I put online to fit what will get me the most love – my online avatar is, at my worst, determined by likes and retweets. Which, terrifyingly, is only a step or two away from the world of Nerve. And if it’s true for ourselves (or is it just me?), it’s certainly true for our young people – if their avatar isn’t a work of their own creation, it’s one cobbled together by what draws them the most attention - and in the fickle online world of teenagers, negative attention is far better than no attention. We’re working with a generation whose very identity is placed in the hands of the online market.
Nerve does a really good job of showing up the flaws in the way we view the relationship between ourselves and the internet. It shows the short-sighted nature of grabbing our self-worth from a heap of malleable, fluid sources. If you’re not thinking about young people’s relationship with the internet, you should watch this film. If you’re looking for a smart, interesting way to discuss the way we interact online with your youth group, this is a great starting point.