Managing kids’ exposure to Squid Game

Squid Game is a hyper-violent Netflix series, not suitable for kids. What can parents and schools do to manage exposure?

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Written by Cyber Expert:

Teodora Pavkovic

Psychologist

Those still unfamiliar with the globally trending show Squid Game may assume from the name that it's a televised seafood cooking challenge or an underwater nature documentary, perhaps narrated by David Attenborough in his trademark resonant tone. In actuality, it's an increasingly popular hyper-violent Korean dystopian Netflix series, and it’s definitely not suitable for underage viewing.

Throughout the season's nine episodes, down and out, indebted contestants are recruited to play a series of childhood games in a hidden arena location. The contestants compete to the death for a life-changing cash prize, all for the sadistic entertainment of wealthy VIPs. It's a mashup of a 1980s slasher movie, William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” and “The Hunger Games” trilogy, with a healthy dose of the less desirable aspects of human nature and a couple of decent plot twists thrown in for good measure. There's extreme violence, killings by the hundreds, graphic sexual encounters, torture, gambling, and blood. Lots of blood.

The global internet spread

If you're an adult who's into that kind of thing, it makes for compelling viewing. Squid Game has become Netflix's most-watched series – it’s currently ranked number one in 94 countries – so the numbers don't lie. Not surprisingly, though, the show's rated TV-MA and considered unsuitable viewing for those under 17 years of age. As a Netflix-exclusive series, you may assume you can simply block the program on your account if you wish to stop your kids being exposed to its inappropriate content (and hope the parents of their friends do the same). However, the problem with this assumption is that when shows go viral in today’s hyper-connected world, they work their way into other virtual spaces, making it extremely difficult for parents to control and moderate their children’s exposure.

Since its release in mid-September 2021, Squid Game has escaped the confines of Netflix and rapidly infiltrated social media and other online platforms, including TikTok, Instagram, Roblox, Fortnite and YouTube. TikTok and Instagram have been flooded with Squid Game memes, challenge reenactments, scene compilations, and fan animations, some of which include characters from popular family-loved Disney and Pixar movies.

Virtual recreations of the game are being developed and played by kids on Fortnite and Roblox, and videos from these and other social media outlets have quickly found their way onto YouTube. Squid Game toys are available for purchase, and it's even appeared in ad campaigns for many popular global brands. 

The wider the phenomenon spreads, the more children are exposed – even though they may never have watched a single episode of the series – and the harder it is for parents to control.

The risks of early exposure to violent content

With ready access to social media and other online platforms, children’s exposure to online violence has steadily increased. Studies have shown continuous exposure to violence can blur the lines between fiction and reality, making it more difficult for children to self-regulate their emotions and behavior, and potentially making relationships more challenging for them to navigate.

As a natural part of pretend-play and impersonation, we see that kids who are exposed to violence may emulate the violent behaviors themselves, and as part of that cycle, risk becoming desensitized. The initial shock of witnessing multiple graphic and callous killings in episode one of Squid Game is barely detectable by episode three, and viewers will notice the intensity of that shock drastically decreasing by the series' end. More worrying is that the morally questionable behavior displayed by most of the characters throughout starts to become normalized, potentially providing children with confusing mixed messages about real life.

Managing exposure to violent content

Alerting parents to the risks arising from their children's exposure to Squid Game and other similarly trending online entertainment can be a delicate balancing act. While it's vital to ensure parents have the necessary knowledge and tools to effectively manage any damaging exposure, it's equally important that children not yet aware of this viral phenomenon aren't unnecessarily exposed.

A parent from Camberwell in the UK tweeted that the result of her children's primary school attempting to do the right thing (sending a letter to parents and calling a whole school assembly warning kids not to watch Squid Game) was that almost every child in the school wanted to watch Squid Game. This approach serves as the perfect example of the ‘forbidden fruit tasting sweeter’ type of outcome. Experts believe that it's still important for schools to warn parents – it just needs to be done in a thoughtful way, keeping children’s likely behavioral outcomes in mind.

Clinical mental health counseling expert Dr Rebecca Cowan says it's usual for children in the classroom – and playground – setting to talk about and imitate trending online shows and games. Given its popularity, schools will likely become aware of a child's exposure to Squid Game before their parents. So, what are the best ways schools and parents can manage the risks and limit the damage of exposure?

Practical tips for addressing Squid Game with children

  • Most kids are observational learners and will imitate the behavior they see in others, and given that the game challenges in this series are based on actual childhood games, they can be very appealing to children. Experts state that playing non-violent replicated versions of the games from the show is generally considered acceptable, but any violent reenactments (even those that are mimicked) where students can get hurt need to be addressed and managed immediately.

  • Rather than discussing Squid Game with children directly, schools should communicate any information, concerns or warnings about the series  to the parents, so that they can manage the exposure and risks with their children as appropriate.

  • Parents should always check the age rating of any video-based entertainment content their children want to consume, as well as the age rating of any platforms their children are on or are asking to use. If your child is younger than the recommended age, but you think they may be able to handle it, speak with them about the content first and let them know you are there to discuss their experience afterward as well.

  • School networks will likely have protection in place to block inappropriate content; however, it's vital that home networks also have adequate parental controls and content filters. Likewise, parents should ensure they set their children's social media accounts to restricted mode and that family tech agreements contain rules regarding parental expectations for online behavior.

  • Parents should discuss any inappropriate content from Squid Game that their children have been exposed to openly and honestly. It's important for children to fully understand what they have seen and  to be able to explain how they feel as a result. This not only includes the extreme violence, but other problematic themes that arise from the show, including the exploitation of those less fortunate, the disregard for human life, questionable moral behavior, and engaging in extreme  behavior for monetary gain and to the detriment of others.

  • To guide what content your children consume online, consider setting a family digital agreement. By outlining rules for what your children can watch on television and online, you help manage tech use and ensure your children are fully aware of your expectations.

Further reading

Starting with social media

What happens when your teenager is ready for a social media account?

Setting a digital agreement

Ever feel like you and your kids just aren’t on the same page?

Rule breaking

Getting help with rule-breaking behavior.

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