Check out excerpt #8 from our book-in-progress, Who’s Raising Our Kids? Nurturing Human Values in a Digital World (©2017)!
“Mom, do you know what a hooker and a stripper is?” My son was seven, and I was driving him home from school. I was surprised, to say the least. I assured him I did and asked if he knew what a hooker and stripper was. It turns out that, at recess, a friend described a video game he had played the day before at a 12-year-old’s house. In the game, if you killed enough people, you entered a room where a woman took off her top. That was a stripper, his friend explained. If you killed more people and got to a higher level of the game, you entered a room where a woman took off all her clothes. That, my son told me, was a hooker. What was most unnerving about this story is that by seven years old, despite my best and most diligent parenting, I could not prevent my son’s first exposure to the idea of naked women being a reward for violence.
Investigating further, I found out the mother of the seven-year-old didn’t know her son had played that game and the mother of the 12-year-old had no idea her son owned that game. Neither knew such online environments even existed. But their children had gone through that door and stayed for hours, learning about how men who kill are entitled to naked women.
There are so many subtle ways that games acculturate our children, yet most of us know next to nothing about the environment that we’ve given them. We would never be so lax if we were dropping our children off at someone’s house. We’d want to know if the environment was safe and that the people there had some sense of right and wrong. We’d make sure that things like hitting, cursing, stealing, shooting, and misogyny—at the very least—weren’t happening because we understand their profound impact on kids.
Today, we need to develop ways as a family and culture to protect our kids from environments that harm them. We need to ask the parents of our kids’ friends what types of games they have at home. We need to inform our kids that there are games that encourage people to be mean and violent and, even though they are “just games,” it’s never okay to have “fun” killing and humiliating others. We can be clear that, in the same way we wouldn’t want them to play at a house where people act that way, we don’t want them to play those kinds of games.
Of course, not all games have horrible values. Some games elicit creativity, compassion, and sharing. For some particularly shy kids, certain games help them connect to other children. I’ve had mothers of children with Asperger’s or social anxiety disorder tell me that video games have been a godsend, allowing otherwise isolated children to bond with peers. It’s wonderful when a socially anxious teen can make a connection in a chat room, or a teen with few friends can socialize with fellow gamers. That said, there are pitfalls in these situations as well.
Greg is an anxious 19-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome, who barely finished high school and has been living in his parent’s basement for the last year. He games until dawn and sleeps all day. He has a number of online friendships with fellow gamers that matter a great deal to him. Among these friends he’s considered a leader. He’s intelligent and aware that he will not be able to sustain this current life, but he is unable to disengage. It’s easy to imagine that his parents could just unplug him. But until you have worked with the nightmare of gaming addiction, it’s impossible to understand how horrific a child’s response can be. Children threaten suicide, cut themselves, destroy property, attack their parents. Kids are hospitalized. Police are called. And it’s not just what they are learning from the game, it’s what they are not learning about life. The longer they play, the more they miss out on important life experiences needed to become independent human beings.
One day I asked Greg why the gaming world was preferable to life. “When I’m online, I’m a success,” he said. “When I’m offline, I’m a loser.” Sadly, whether he realizes it or not, his capacity to succeed in the real world diminishes with each passing day.
Not all kids will become addicted, but some will. And if you can’t justify placing your child’s brain in an environment that you do not have the time or ability to thoroughly examine, why spend your money bringing it into your house?