Kirk Cameron was right about the destructive power of the Internet.
“The battle we face is not against Facebook,” Cameron once told me in an interview. “The real battle is the battle of the heart and the mind.”
When I last spoke to him in 2018, Cameron, an actor and Christian activist I’ve interviewed several times, was promoting a new documentary, “Kirk Cameron: Connect.” “Connect” is a film about the dangers of social media.
Produced by and starring Cameron, the former 1980s teen heartthrob (“Growing Pains”) and current producer of Christian-themed movies (“Fireproof”), “Connect” is two hours of insight into protecting kids—and ourselves—in the age of digital devices and the often dark world they contain.
As Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others have grown more ubiquitous and powerful, Cameron’s message has only become more vital. “Connect” offers a voice of sanity, faith, and reason in a world where fewer and fewer companies control more and more digital space. They censor polite ideas they don’t approve of while allowing a steady stream of pornography.
The theme of “Connect” is that kids need to be trained to want to avoid the soul-killing side of the Internet. As pastor Ken Graves points out in the film, training is different from teaching. To teach is to instruct a child not to touch a hot stove. To train involves habituating the young to behavior that will not just keep them out of danger, but allow them to flourish. There’s a difference between being told not to watch pornography and acquiring the discipline, based on knowledge, the habit of proper decision-making, and finally self-mastery, to genuinely not want to watch—to be a person who is free enough to not want to watch.
“This was a real journey for me, personally an eye-opening experience,” Cameron told me when the film was released. “I’m coming at this as a father. For my six kids, who all have phones, and some of them need their phones for their sports or school or jobs, I’m really concerned about the way it’s affecting them. I’m pro technology, but they desperately need wisdom. As parents, we need help because no one has ever done this before.”
Cameron uses the term “pioneer parents” to indicate that the iPhone world is something totally new: “You can’t go to your parents or grandparents and ask how they dealt with social media, because it didn’t exist. They didn’t have it back then. The iPhone was invented 10 years ago—only 10 years ago. It’s only now that the reports are coming out because no one knew what this would do to kids. The reports are shocking.”
“Connect” profiles experts such as neurosurgeon Ian Armstrong, who describes how the digital grid manipulates the reward center in the brain. Armstrong explains how hormones make teens process information differently than younger kids, and that digital interference in this formative stage can adversely affect their brains. Getting friends and pings on social media provides a boost of positive serotonin, a quick shot of joy in the brain that can be habit forming.
Like Armstrong, Kathy Koch, author of “Screens and Teens,” offers perceptive analysis of the teen desire to belong, and how this leaves them open to immersion on social media, which can quickly make them victims of abuse and bullying.
Cameron interviews some of the kids who have been bullied and preyed upon on social media. The parent of one such boy is Tim Woda, whose son was approached online by a stranger. Woda tracked the man, eventually helping authorities prosecute him. Woda is the founder of uKnowKids, a technology that enabled parents to track kids on cellphones and monitor the digital messages they’re receiving.
Cameron also sits down with Mark Gregston, founder of Heartlight Ministries ranch in Texas, a boarding school for struggling teens. Gregston observes that kids start making independent choices by the time they reach 12 or 13, and that letting them make bad decisions is essential to their growth and independence. Gregston describes how allowing kids to get their driver’s license can be a scary time for parents, but also an important transition that builds confidence and strengthens relationships.
Cameron admits that there’s no going back to the analog world, adding that as a fan of technology himself, he doesn’t want to. He just wants kids to be smart consumers who are able to practice some self-mastery.
“Our kids more than anything need parents who can show them the superiority of living life not for the approval of their Instagram friends but for the approval of heaven,” he said, “and to love God with all their heart, and their neighbor as themselves. We need to model that for our kids and show the superiority of real friendship and relationships, not hollow, fake followers shaping their sense of identity and purpose and destiny in the world.”
Mark Judge is a journalist in Washington, D.C. He is the author of “Damn Senators,” “A Tremor of Bliss,” and “God and Man at Georgetown Prep.”