Ah, Facebook. The place where you can reconnect with people you barely remember from high school. A few months ago, a Facebook acquaintance of mine posted a photo of her seven-year-old son playing “Call of Duty,” the incredibly violent first-person-shooter video game.
Okay, look, my own rule when it comes to other parents’ choices is “judge not lest ye be judged.” But I have to admit that part of me was HORRIFIED that anyone would let a young child play a game so age-inappropriate as Call of Duty.
In fact, I’m kind of horrified that these games exist at all.
I know that one of the gifts under our tree this year is a Nerf semi-automatic suction dart-gun thing -- a gift to Oliver from a relative. I spent a long time trying to keep my son separated from toy guns, but then one day he started making them out of sticks anyway. And then he got his first Nerf gun (it’s pretty fun to shoot those suction darts at the big window in our living room, I have to admit).
But those are toys made for kids his age, for the most part. He isn’t pointing the suction darts at people (at least not while I’m watching, who know what goes on behind my back) or animals. He isn’t shooting his Nerf guns with the intention of hurting or killing anything. He shoots them because aiming at a target is kinda fun.
Video games are another thing entirely. I’ll come out and say it: I find those first-person-shooter games, like Call of Duty, really disturbing. Not only for kids, but for adults, too. (Fact: I would never let a guy who plays those games with any regularity put his P in my V.) I think they are weird and sick and needlessly aggressive.
You wanna kill zombies? Great. You wanna pretend you’re Scarface and ride around Vice City in your pastel blazer listening to 80s music? Fine, who doesn’t? With games like these, there’s violence, sure, but there’s also an element of fantasy that keeps things light and entertaining.
First-person-shooter games are based on bloodshed made to look as realistic as possible, so that the player can really get the true experience of killing another human being. I don’t know, pretending you’re at war, when there are real men and women and children dying in real wars right now, seems wrong to me.
Look, I don’t really care what adults do, so long as it isn’t hurting anyone else, even if I do think dudes who play those Black Ops games are missing an empathy chip in their brains. But kids are another matter -- they should NOT be playing these games.
In fact, research has proven a link between violent video games and aggression in children. Think about that for a minute. Think what must happen to a child’s brain if he or she is regularly exposed to violent imagery, starting from a young age.
And it’s not only video games. Last Friday, after I’d spent the entire day crying over the dead babies in Newtown, I had to pull it together because we had purchased tickets like a month ago to see "The Hobbit" with a group of friends (you guys, two of my friends wore Hobbit feet to the movie -- just wanted to put that out there).
Sitting there in the theater, I realized that even "The Hobbit," with its marketing tie-ins aimed at children (LEGO sets and games, anyone?), is a pretty dark and violent film, complete with fast-cut action sequences to demonic-looking goblins and Orcs. The actual, real-life violence that had gone down that day at an elementary school illuminated the imagined violence on the movie screen in front of me, and it made me feel really uncomfortable.
I’ve noticed for years that movies are more aggressive than they used to be. Even children’s films like “Rise of the Guardians,” which Oliver begged me to take him to see, have near-seizure-inducing action sequences where your eyes can barely focus, not to mention booming sound effects. The pace is faster, like one long music video. How can a kid’s developing brain keep up with all this flashy imagery?
We’ve written on xoJane before about the age-inappropriate movies we were exposed to as kids. We all survived that, right? We didn’t become angry and violent adults, did we? But I can tell you that movies are different now. For example, where once we had "E.T.," which appealed to kids, even if it was not made specifically for kids, now we have “Pacific Rim,” which also appeals to kids, even though it isn’t made for kids (I mean, giant battling robots, come on).
Compare the trailer for 1982’s "E.T.":
To the trailer for 2013’s "Pacific Rim":
See the difference? I realize this is all very abstract, and I’m certainly no expert on the psychological effects of violent imagery on children. But I am a parent who has noticed a decidedly aggressive shift in tone with respect to what we consider entertaining these days, and I don’t like what I see.*
In the wake of the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I wonder how many parents are reconsidering the appropriateness of giving their children violent toys and games. This mom over at The Atlantic certainly is. And I feel a little bit uncomfortable that my kid is going to unwrap a candy-colored, semi-automatic Nerf gun on Christmas morning.
Edited to add: I want to note here, after the NRA's joke of a news conference, that I do not think that violent imagery is where we should place the blame for the tragedy in Newtown. While it makes me uncomfortable, and I think we could all benefit from less violence in our entertainment, especially the stuff we show to our kids, it is completely irresponsible to lay the blame on any one thing, whether that thing is violent video games, guns, or mental illness. Solving the problem of gun violence is going to require a multi-faceted approach. Oh yeah, and I have a few ideas of where the NRA can shove its news conference. -- Love, Somer
*Damn kids and their rock ‘n roll music.
Somer's on Twitter @somersherwood