Red light…green light.
Wow, I just had a chilling flashback from my Netflix binge following my holiday knee surgery.
Red light…green light.
Hang on, there it is again.
My eyes shot up from the Year 6 Pr1me book and I stared across the classroom in disbelief as I witnessed two students re-enacting the first game from Squid Games – the Netflix phenomenon that has been dominating social media platforms. After sharing my astonishment with other colleagues, my fears grew deeper as I realised this series had infiltrated other year levels and had taken over the Fortnite craze.
This was the same week that I saw the St John’s Grammar community come out in droves to the Kidz Biz information night to share a common narrative from School to home and to better prepare for when the important ‘birds and the bees’ chat arises at home. We are so lucky to have a community that holds the wellbeing of our students at the forefront of everything we do, so I felt compelled to write an article that voiced my concerns over what the youth of today are watching and talking about.
I would be doing a disservice if I turned a blind eye and allowed Red Light Green Light to take over from Football Friday and become the next game we see in the yard. Squid Games is a popular Netflix series which depicts extreme violence and gore. The series, according to Netflix, has reached 111 million fans. It centres on cash-strapped players who accept an invitation to compete in children’s games. It becomes a survival game in which losers are killed in a grotesque manner. The show includes things like suicide, extreme violence, exploitation of people in disadvantaged positions, gambling and substance abuse. For these reasons, the series is rated MA for mature audiences but students as young as six and seven are watching the series. Children are very impressionable, and they start identifying with the characters and mimicking the things they do, including beating up those who lose the games. A child finds it much harder than an adult to distinguish the virtual from the real world.
Pope Francis recently stated in a message for World Communication Day that “frequent exposure to violence in the media can be confusing to children” and they may come “to regard this as normal and acceptable behaviour, suitable for imitation”.
What then, as parents, should be our response to the growing popularity of online series such as Squid Games, and to games such as Fortnite, which are also of concern for similar reasons?
Child Psychologist Rose Cantali, head of the NSW branch of the Australian Parent’s Council has offered this advice, which I thoroughly endorse: “Watch any show that children are watching, that’s a must, and minimise any series that promotes excessive violence, and where kids can get involved in a character and a game”.
We as parents also need to stand firm and not give in to the old cry of “everyone else is watching it”. If you have not yet launched parental controls on your Netflix account, ensuring that your children are blocked from watching MA rated shows, here is a simple guide in how to add this restriction.
Apart from raising awareness of the negative impacts of online series and games, I would like to address several other related issues.
The first of these is the growing phenomenon of binge viewing of series such as Squid Games. It was stated recently in the Toronto Star that “entertainment is fast becoming an all-you-can-eat buffet. Call it the Netflix effect”. A huge number of Netflix viewers watch back-to-back episodes of new series once they become available, devouring a whole series in a few days. Children are not immune to binge watching thanks to apps such as Disney’s mobile tablet app aimed at two- to seven-year-olds which generated 650 million video views for Disney over the first 16 months of release. Mobile devices are so convenient that parents can allow greater use than they actually desire, inadvertently adding to the potential for a young child to develop a screen addiction. I must admit, I have fallen into the trap of handing my phone to my child to gain some extra me-time on occasions.
Contemporary tweens and teens are watching an average of two hours a day of their favourite series and this doesn’t include the time spent surfing social media platforms. A powerful motivation for children to binge watch is to be able to talk about the show with friends in the school yard and not be left out of conversations or indeed of the re-enactments I spoke of earlier.
A major consequence of quick and easy access to Netflix and other streaming services is that it can become all-consuming and interest can be lost in other activities. It is much easier to take the path of passive viewing than it is to engage in active study or family responsibilities. Over time it becomes harder and harder to get out of their comfort zone and easier to sit at home, often in their bedrooms in front of their screens.
Mental health experts warn of screen addiction.
When you are involved in an enjoyable activity, such as watching your favourite show, your brain produces dopamine, a chemical which promotes feelings of pleasure and happiness. Prolonged watching maintains the “high” and children become effectively addicted to their electronic devices. The same principle is at work when you watch a YouTube clip. When you finish watching that clip the algorithms immediately feed you another clip similar to the last in order to keep you watching and, of course, exposed to the advertising carefully chosen for you as you watch. My father talks about growing up in an English village without TV, computers, mobile phones, social media or the Internet. He spent long hours exploring the woods and hedges surrounding the village and at night, his mother read to him the children’s classics such as Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh. Just two generations later, Squid Games has essentially replaced Wind in the Willows and backyard adventures have been replaced by long hours sitting inert in front of screens. We cannot bring back that lost world, nor probably would we want to, but we can and should protect our children from the worst aspect of the electronic world that has replaced it.
We at St John’s Grammar want children to soar in every aspect of their lives.
We deeply care for the social welfare and mental health of your child as well as their academic progress. To continue this commitment, the Junior School continually look to improve the cyber and media safety education of our young people and we have appointed a specialist Digital Technologies teacher to drive the changes we need.
I am also pleased to share that I will be teaching Wellbeing across all year levels and will take the reins in ensuring our students remain safe and knowledgeable in their interactions with our media world. If the issues I have discussed in this paper have raised concerns for you, please don’t hesitate to contact myself or your child’s teacher.
I look forward to sharing my insights with you on social media and the effects on the child’s brain in Part 2.
In the meantime, please see the recommendations that I have compiled from this article, and a range of resources to support you to navigate the online space safely with your child.
- Screen time doesn’t have to be alone time – watch shows that your children are watching or play a video game with them. Minimise anything that promotes violence.
- Make a family media plan – set up screen time limits and routines that your child must stick to.
- Reduce FOMO – try getting them off their screens and doing something else they enjoy. The old saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’ could work a charm.
- Remove devices from bedrooms – have a charging dock at a central location in the house.
- Avoid using electronics as a babysitter – it can be effective, but try to find other strategies to manage their strong emotions or create an activity list for when they get bored.
- Kids will be kids – inevitably, they will make mistakes using media, so try and approach these with empathy and create a teachable moment.
Deputy Head of Junior School
Please find below a collection of resources that we recommend for parents, in helping both you and your child navigate the online space safely. This includes Parent TV, which our School subscribes to on behalf of all our families.
Parents | eSafety Commissioner
The #1 Cyber Safety Solution | Family Zone Cyber Safety Software
Safe on Social Media | Cyber Safety Education & Training
App Fact Sheets | The Carly Ryan Foundation
Common Sense Media: Age-Based Media Reviews for Families
The Sydney Morning Herald, “Children As Young As Six Mimicking Squid Game in Playground, School Warns”
Brain&Life Magazine, “Game Theory: The Effects of Video Games On The Brain”
The Clinton Courier, “Netflix And Its Harmful Effects On Students These Days”
Health – University of Utah, “The Video Games Your Child Plays Has An Effect On Their Behaviour”
Project Muse (Research Paper), “The Netflix Effect: Teens, Binge Watching, and On Demand Digital Media Trends”
Applied Developmental Psychology (Research Paper), “Playing Violent Video Games, Desensitization, and Moral Evaluation In Children”
Psych Central (Research Paper), “More Evidence Fortnite Is Bad For Your Child’s Health”