The Nerve to Believe in Our Kids

Last night my teenage daughter and I watched a thriller called Nerve, a new movie starring Emma Roberts and Dave Franco. Nerve portrays a world where young people chase after instafame by completing dares while a virtual audience watches. It also explores themes such as loss of privacy on social media and with games like Pokemon Go, and it shows how the online crowd veiled in anonymity can bring out bile, hate and shame.

Watching young people like my daughter and her friends on their phones, one can easily give in to anxiety and imagine the next generation becoming a nation of drone like people tethered to devices. This is the dystopian vision introduced in Nerve. The movie highlights how the Internet can bring out the worse qualities of humankind and suggests that this future is 10 minutes away. When we witness people like Milo Yiannopoulis and his army of drones hate bashing on Twitter, it’s easy to believe we are already there.

The movie eerily echoed the implications of research that my colleague Patricia Greenfield and I conducted at UCLA; these studies indicated that fame obsession had become part of the sociocultural environment of adolescents. And indeed, my daughter loved the film; it spoke to her in a way that resonated with her experience. But her passion for the narrative wasn’t the story of the high-tech game that made players famous as they broadcast their risky behavior. Rather, she identified deeply with the young heroine, a teenage girl, who was grappling with the transition to adulthood as she contemplated leaving home to follow her passions. In short, the classic coming-of-age story.

I won’t spoil the ending of Nerve, but suffice it to say the heroine finds her way and makes the right choices. This is the magic of storytelling. This story, like so many others, helps us make sense of this crazy world we live in. My daughter also wants to make the right choices, and as she watched the movie, her strong identification with the lead character translated into a sense of empowerment and connection. Yes she stares at her phone too much and takes incessant pictures, but she is also becoming a young woman I am very proud of. The allure of devices and social media are worrisome, but these tools can also be a powerful force for equality by allowing disenfranchised people to share their stories. The end result is a more transparent world with more opportunities for equality. And while people like Milo will try to breed hatred, in the end Leslie Jones shared her story and took a stand.

Does this mean I’m entirely comfortable with all of the newer digital media and the challenges it poses to my children’s development and success? No, I’m still worried, but I’m willing to empower myself, learn the facts and believe in our ability to adapt. As Allison Gopnik stated “We try to give our children a strong sense of safety and stability. We do this even though the whole point of that safe base is to encourage children to take risks and have adventures. And we try to pass on our knowledge, wisdom and values to our children, even though we know that they will revise that knowledge, challenge that wisdom and reshape those values.” That’s the version of parenting that psychological research supports, and that’s the healthiest way to think about the digital media world.

Watching the Democratic convention this week, I am happy to see optimism and celebration of the first female nominee for President. Similarly, I hope that anxious parents of digitally savvy teens will do their best to look towards the positive and trust that the wisdom we impart to our children will stick. Our children do learn from the media environment, from the images and words that we are all surrounded by, but most of all they learn from us, their parents ― from our modeling, our family values and from their own unique experiences. The lead of Nerve could be my daughter, a strong young woman, who saves the day by understanding that the villain is inside all of us and it’s up to each of us to take a stand and to do the right thing. We have the choice, and the next generation will be leading the way.