Proverbs 16:33 says the cast lot is from the Lord… and sometimes, the cast lot lands you with suddenly-canceled evening plans and six passes to a sneak peek of a movie.
So it was that I found myself at a special preview of Nerve.* Loosely billed as a sci-fi thriller, it focuses on high school senior Vee (Emma Roberts), who gets sucked deeper and deeper into an online game called Nerve where kids are dared to do certain things on camera. Each dare gets you more money, more likes, more “Watchers.” The dares start out comparatively harmless, if stupid: kiss a stranger. Try on a $4,000 dress. Moon your classmates. But each dare gets more and more dangerous, until you either win it all, drop out… or die. And it all depends on the whims of the anonymous people watching you.
Sound at all familiar? That’s because it is. It’s Instagram and Snapchat and YouTube and Facebook. It’s sexting and cyberbullying, gamified.
For once, Hollywood has managed to capture the very real dangers kids face online in a well-told story—and it’s a nervewracking story that all parents should see with their teens.
A note about spoilers and content
Now, Covenant Eyes is not in the movie review business. We’re in the educating business. As such, most of this post will focus on the reality of online activities as gleaned from the movie, and how it impacts modern parenting. I will try to avoid spoilers, but sometimes they will be unavoidable.
I’d also like to offer a brief word of caution regarding some of the content. First off, for being PG-13, it’s surprisingly intense. Parents of preteens might want to watch this on their own before they take their kids to see it. Second, there is some questionable content. In addition to the aforementioned mooning, one female character strips to her underwear on camera, and she and a male character later spend about two minutes of film time running around in their underwear. There is some foul language, though most of it is disguised as texts appearing onscreen. Two guns are fired, and one person dies off-screen. Most of the worst is shown in the trailer; watch it to determine if it’s appropriate for your family.
If you don’t want spoilers, stop right there. If you don’t mind a few spoilers now and then, keep on reading.
Reality 1: Anonymity is a lie.
There are two types of people in the game Nerve: the Players and the Watchers. Players get the fame, but Watchers are the ones with the real power. They give the Players the orders they need to obey. And they manipulate the Players’ fears to make them do some of the worst possible things, all under anonymous user IDs, all while wearing masks in real life.
But even the Watchers are slaves to the system. See, Nerve works by aggregating all of a user’s data as soon as they join as either Player or Watcher. Everything you can know about a person online—every Facebook post, every deleted comment, every photo, every like, Nerve collects from both Player and Watcher. Even though the Watchers themselves have no need for a public identity, by the end of the movie every Watcher is dreadfully aware their own mask of anonymity is just that: a mask that is easily stripped away. They don’t know each others’ identities, but Nerve does. And so could the cops.
This is the truth that’s easiest to forget: that the Internet is never truly anonymous, and it’s only going to get less anonymous as technologies continue to develop. For example, both Facebook and Google track users via cookies, universal logins, etc. This is often a convenience; it’s easier to sign into a website to leave a comment using your Facebook profile than to have to create and maintain a separate account. But it’s still important to remember those sites are tracking you, and while that data is stored impersonally, it could hypothetically be connected back to you. Not to mention the fact that most cell phones automatically track your actual physical location unless you turn that feature off.
And, of course, there’s a lot of truth to the adage that nothing ever disappears from the Internet, and even private servers aren’t private. Remember a year or so ago when someone hacked iCloud and shared several celebrities’ nude photos? Or have you ever heard of “revenge porn,” where ex-boyfriends will send their former girlfriends’ nude selfies to porn sites? If it is data on an electronic device with Internet capabilities (or if there is a way to transfer that data to Internet-capable device), it is vulnerable data.
I’m not trying to fear-monger here. The Internet is awesome! Keep using it! Keep adapting to increased convenience in technology! But do so with your eyes wide open, knowing that you’re never truly anonymous when you’re online.
Reality 2: Temptation is a slippery slope.
For Players, the object of Nerve is simple enough: sign up to play, complete your dares while filming them on your own phone, accumulate the most Watchers, and win the game. Refuse a dare (or simply fail to complete it within the time limit) and you’re out of the game.
The earliest dares are fairly easy. Vee’s first dare is to kiss a stranger for five seconds; that stranger turns out to be Ian (Dave Franco), another Player, who is then dared to serenade Vee. Then they’re dared to travel together from one NYC borough to another. Meanwhile, Vee’s best friend Sydney (Emily Meade) is dared to do things like moon the school or fart on a stranger. All of these are stupid and require a bit of nerve to do them, but they’re not truly dangerous. Even Vee’s decision to travel with Ian is comparatively safe; after all, they’re both players of the game, and every move is filmed.
But this doesn’t last. Dares get increasingly dangerous or hurtful. People are dared to steal property, to drive blindfolded with someone else navigating, to jump subway tracks, and to dangle from construction cranes.
If you’ve ever read the Covenant Eyes blog before, you probably recognize the pattern of addiction as set forth here: baby steps lead to increasingly risky moves. Usually we talk about this cycle in terms of pornography, but I won’t belabor that angle. Rather, I want to point out that this cycle is evident in a lot of online behaviors. Your daughter will post bikini-clad beach pics on Instagram long before she sends a nude selfie to her boyfriend. Your son will tease another kid for being fat in a Facebook photo long before he’s telling that same person to kill himself on Yik Yak. But the more steps your child takes down those paths, the easier it becomes to do what was unthinkable months earlier…and with enough social validation, with enough “likes” and “faves,” it may even become costly to stop.
This leads directly to the next point…
Reality 3: Doing the right thing can be problematic.
Vee’s a good kid. She doesn’t want to hurt anyone. She just wants to prove to herself that she’s not the coward Sydney says she is. And at least twice, she makes the best call she can think of to get out of a sticky situation. In the first case, she and Ian are trying on very expensive clothing in a department store when they discover their own clothing has been stolen by another Nerve Player. Then they’re dared to leave the store. Rather than steal a $4,000 dress, Vee and Ian decide to leave the store…in their underwear.
Much later in the game, when Vee realizes exactly how hurtful and deadly Nerve truly is, she makes the obvious right choice: she goes to the police. But because she can’t point to a specific crime, the police are no help. Even worse, the game itself takes her hostage; there is no escape unless she wins…or dies.
Now, without spoiling anything, this is a PG-13 movie. The ending is relatively happy. To quote the grandfather in The Princess Bride, “She does not get eaten by eels at this time.” But for a brief moment, injustice appears to win. And with all the chaos going on in the world right now, this is a crucial message to pass on to kids: doing the right thing will sometimes hurt a lot. This will range from mild teasing—”What do you mean you’re 18 and still a virgin?”—to potentially even worse outcomes. Maybe a campus ministry’s website gets hacked. Maybe your child’s faith makes him or her a target of cyberbullying. The world is a dark, unjust place. For Christians in particular, it’s important to remember that “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33), and our right choices won’t always be rewarded right away.
Vee, of course, walks away relatively unscathed; her courage to do the right thing when the wrong thing would be so much easier is ultimately rewarded. Technically, that’s one of the most unrealistic aspects of Nerve. But that’s the role of fiction anyway: to offer hope to a hurting world. Or, as Neil Gaiman, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton, once wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true—not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
Reality 4: Parents and friends make a difference.
Vee’s life before Nerve isn’t perfect, but it’s solid. She’s got a very loving, involved mother and several solid friendships. And in the course of her experience with Nerve, she nearly destroys them all.
But even as Vee’s life starts to spiral out of control, her mother (Juliette Lewis) and friends start taking action. Her mother in particular is immediately aware that something strange is going on when she gets instant alerts on her phone about large deposits in her bank account. She calls Vee. She calls Vee’s friends. And Vee’s friends also recognize the danger long before Vee does; their actions help set her up to survive.
Conversely, Vee’s best friend Sydney is wildly popular, but most of her relationships are hollow. A trust-fund baby, her parents are always absent. She turns to Nerve to find the recognition she craves. In fact, she invites Vee to Nerve not as a Player but as a Watcher to add to her own glory.
And that’s where Vee has the advantage. By the climax, Vee’s mother and friends (old and new) have joined together to save Vee’s life. And while the movie starts with Sydney bringing Vee down to her level, in the end Vee helps Sydney to begin to change, to stop seeing people as commodities toward popularity but instead as individuals with their own hopes and dreams.
And really, that’s what Covenant Eyes is about. It’s about bringing friends closer together through accountability. It’s about parents not just letting a filter do the parenting online, but actually talking to their kids about online values.
Parents, you especially need to be involved in your kids’ lives, both online and off. Teach them your values, and live them out online yourself.
And when movies like Nerve come out, take them to see it… and take the opportunity to remind your kids that what they do online matters.
Nerve opens in theaters on July 27.
*Two friends and I each independently won a pair of passes to a preview of Nerve. None of us, nor Covenant Eyes proper, were in any way compensated for viewing or reviewing this film.