The Big Read: Is 'Squid Game' bad for children?

Parents worried about their children mimicking the Netflix series should reflect on the games their own generation played — and focus instead on the really scary stuff in modern life
The Big Read: Is 'Squid Game' bad for children?

Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), and Kang Sae-byeok (Jung Ho-yeon) go into battle in ‘Squid Game’. Given the themes in the series, the real fear may be that children will be exposed to a searing critique of late-stage capitalism. Picture: Netflix

As a member of the target group, I was comforted rather than alarmed when the Squid Game warnings to parents began, with schools from Ireland to Australia saying that children were mimicking scenes from the 15-rated show in the playground. 

While I’d seen the show crop up on my Netflix suggestions when it was released in late September, the kids, naturally enough, were ahead of the curve — Snapchat quickly lighting up with mentions of the latest sensation, and classroom conversations about it relayed with excitement as soon as the schoolbags dropped on the floor.

There was something reassuring in the mounting hysteria, as it’s been a while since we’ve been able to indulge in a good old-fashioned moral panic — who remembers the Killer Clown sightings of 2016 or the Momo Challenge of 2019?

Long before that, people of a certain age will remember the video nasty, that great corruptor of 1980s children. Hurrah, then, for this particular episode of social contagion, which has made it feel just like old times, though there’s a real irony in the fact that the Squid Game debate provides something of a welcome distraction from a real-life pandemic.

While much of the content is certainly chilling, 'Squid Game' offers no more tangible danger to children than the sometimes violent TV series of our own childhood. Picture: Netflix
While much of the content is certainly chilling, 'Squid Game' offers no more tangible danger to children than the sometimes violent TV series of our own childhood. Picture: Netflix

As in most examples of moral panic, here we have a classic case where there’s no tangible danger to children in imaginatively adapting something they have seen or heard of for the purposes of fun. 

The interesting twist on this particular instance of fear-mongering is the fact that the show depicts actual children’s playground games such as marbles and tug of war. 

Granted, what comes afterwards in Squid Game isn’t quite as child-friendly, but there’s no danger that children are going to start gunning each other down at break-time.

And what parents wouldn’t like to see their kids return to the halcyon days of running amok in the playground, given that many of the games that defined their own childhood are now off-limits because of safety/insurance concerns? 

We often hear about the importance of getting kids off screens — but now we’re hearing complaints about the fact that they are outside exercising their imaginations. 

Playing, from fairytales to cops and robbers, is how children learn to navigate the real world — good and bad. It seems ridiculous to even write it, but just as a six-year-old who plays at being an astronaut more than likely won’t end up in space, pretending to be violent is not a predictor of violent behaviour in adulthood. 

You’ll have to search long and hard for evidence of any correlation between them.

Likewise, there is no evidence, other than anecdotal, to suggest that young children are in fact watching Squid Game in large numbers. It’s far more likely that in many cases they’re not mimicking Squid Game but rather mimicking each other, which is what children do. And if they are copying the shooting scenes, is it any different to my dad playing cowboys in his time, or me and my friends playing Charlie’s Angels (iconic gun pose included) in ours? 

When so much of their entertainment is mediated through big tech, surely we should be encouraging children to give their imaginations free rein.

Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson, and Jaclyn Smith pictured in 1977 in a promotional shot for the original 'Charlie's Angels' series. And no, they're not praying — that's the trio's iconic gun pose. Picture: Pictorial Parade/Getty Images
Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson, and Jaclyn Smith pictured in 1977 in a promotional shot for the original 'Charlie's Angels' series. And no, they're not praying — that's the trio's iconic gun pose. Picture: Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

What many observers are also missing is that a lot of these children aren’t watching Squid Game on Netflix — but are instead picking it up from memes and videos on other online platforms. 

One 12-year-old of my acquaintance was able to recount the plot of the entire series, not from actually watching it but from TikTok. Which raises the question of whether we should instead be focusing on how such platforms are disseminating unsuitable material to younger children — and the lack of regulation by the tech firms that run them.

If anything, this particular instance of moral panic may be instructive in terms of making us examine how we monitor our children’s consumption of digital media. 

There’s no doubt that parents who were working from home during lockdown relied on devices and screens to keep kids occupied and perhaps didn’t keep as close an eye as they should have on what they were watching — and that habit has bled into post-lockdown life for many.

Beyond the watershed: Monitoring your child's viewing

How much easier it was for my own parents, when there was a watershed — readers under 40, ask your elders — in terms of what could be shown and when, on an anchored device in the living room corner that everyone could see. 

Now we can be in the same room with our kids and not know what they are watching unless we physically check every five minutes.

When it comes to whether children should be watching Squid Game, any parent with a modicum of sense will know that primary school children should not be watching a show with a 15 rating.  However, in practice, any parent will also know that there’s a grey zone regarding what they watch when they hit 12 or so — much depends on the child’s maturity level. When children start secondary school, things begin to get more ambiguous and parental oversight a little more lax.

From 'Cagney and Lacey' in my youth to 'Squid Game' today, such TV series may be far more benign than we sometimes fear, and even become essential elements of our cultural hinterland as we grow up. 
From 'Cagney and Lacey' in my youth to 'Squid Game' today, such TV series may be far more benign than we sometimes fear, and even become essential elements of our cultural hinterland as we grow up. 

There have been many occasions when I have been asked by my children whether they can watch something beyond their age rating. The best case scenario is when I’ve seen it myself, so I can use my own judgment, or if not, I will often check the Common Sense Media website for guidance.

However, there are other times when I’m distracted or otherwise occupied; times when I am not as strict or careful as I should be.

But I also wonder if parents can be too protective at times and whether the ‘benign neglect’ approach has its advantages. 

I think back to my own childhood when I watched everything from Cagney and Lacey to Tales of the Unexpected and Hammer Horror double-bills on a Saturday night. 

I think I can reliably say at this stage that they did me no harm; in fact I see them as essential elements of my cultural hinterland. There is also a healthy level of transgressing the rules that all kids need to experience.

The Squid Game scare is valuable in that it offers an opportunity for parents to discuss screen violence and other issues with children. 

The best thing parents can do with older kids is to sit down and watch shows like this with them. Like sex education, we need to be talking to them about what they may encounter on streaming platforms or on social media long before they are actually on it. 

With a lot of children having smartphones in primary school, it is a matter of when, not if, they encounter disturbing violent and/or pornographic content.

Of course, given the themes of Squid Game — the struggle of the individual against systemic social and economic inequality — the real fear may be that children watching it will be exposed to a searing critique of late-stage capitalism, and the grim reality of what lies ahead in their future.

Perhaps the kids will rise up and smash the system, inspired by Seong Gi-Hun and his friends. 

In the meantime, this moral panic will go the same way of the killer clowns and Momo, until the next one arrives to distract us from the scary stuff that really matters.

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