Two social hot-button issues have come to roost at our house: what music is appropriate for our daughter to listen to, and whether or not it’s okay for her to play violent video games.  The first has to do with exposure to depictions of sex, alcohol, and drugs, as well as possible degradation of women or other populations; the second has to do with exposure to an activity that may or may not lead to increased aggression of her own.  Both boil down to whether or not the influence of the parents can counteract the outside influence of things our children really want to participate in and enjoy.

Let’s address the first issue.  I’m having a really hard time with it largely because of my own personal baggage surrounding children and exposing them to sexual imagery and energies before they’re ready for it.  I suppose “ready for it” should be my guide here.  If she weren’t ready for it, she wouldn’t be so gung ho to listen to music singing about it, because otherwise, it would bother her.  And it’s not so horribly explicit, although there is one song that refers once to S&M that makes me raise my eyebrows.  Which raises the issue of whether or not it should be such a big deal to let kids listen to music singing about things they don’t understand in the first place: all they care about is the music itself.  If there’s something they don’t understand and they have a good relationship with you, they’ll ask you about it.  At least, our daughter does.  Which should ease my mind to at least some extent.  And pretty much any question a kid can ask can be answered in terms they can understand.  Even “What’s S&M?”

I mean, what are parents really afraid of when they don’t want their kids listening to music with sexual imagery? They don’t want their kids having sex too early, if at all for some parents.  I can combat that with education and openness.  Keeping her away from music that sings about sex won’t keep her from knowing there’s sex in the world, and if all of her friends are listening to the same music, she’ll find a way to listen to it anyway, and then we’ll just have a relationship built on deceit and mistrust.  I’d rather let her listen to what she wants to, make sure I know what she’s listening to and that she understands what she’s listening to, and arm her with the knowledge she’ll need to counteract anything negative she might have picked up from the social messages she got.  Which she’ll get anyway eventually regardless of what she’s listening to.

The same goes for anything else negative she might hear in her music, such as references to alcohol or drugs, although I draw the line at anything that degrades another group of people.  I haven’t heard anything like that yet though.  She doesn’t hang out with kids like that and has such a strong sense of justice and fairness that I know she would never tolerate that sort of thing in her music or from her friends.  I’ll have to keep an ear out for subtle put-downs, though: things she might not pick up on and wouldn’t realize are mean things to say about other people.  She’s still young enough to be learning those social rules and slang terms.  It’s a pity I have to be worried about such things being peppered into something as innocent as dance music.

She can’t listen to whatever she wants to unsupervised, though.  I have to know what she’s hearing if I’m going to be able to protect her from what’s negative or educate her about something.  She hates this, but that’s my job to oversee what goes into her head.

And the same is going to have to go for the video games.  She and Daddy got new video games for Christmas.  Daddy gets to play games rated ‘M’, and it really chaps our daughter’s ass, not to put too fine a point on it.  I can’t say I blame her: all the really cool games are rated ‘M’.  What kid doesn’t want to kill zombies?  Resident Evil is deemed too violent for the under 17 crowd, though.  And I can’t say I blame the game raters, either: there’s a lot of gunfire and gore.  Other games, I’m unclear as to why they got an ‘M’ rating and not a ‘T’ rating, since there’s killing in ‘T’ games as well.  The whole ratings thing makes me wonder, why is it okay for teens to engage in video game killing in hand-to-hand combat (Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception) but not stab monsters with a sword (Skyrim)?  The husband’s only been playing Skyrim for a few days, so maybe there’s more in the game further in that makes it clearer as to why it has a higher rating.

My daughter’s begging made me pull up “video game violence and kids” on Google and do some research on the subject.  Unsurprisingly, there’s no concrete evidence to suggest that violent video games make kids more violent or even aggressive.  In fact, as video game sales have skyrocketed in recent years, juvenile violent crime has gone down (as has crime overall, if I’m not mistaken, even though the news would have you believe otherwise).  Much like every other new invention that hits humanity, video games have been decried as the new harbinger of the decline of society, though that tends not to be the case (I’m sure you could find those would argue to the contrary, though: television, automobiles, computers, etc.).  I’m much more concerned with how changes in economic policy over the last few decades have caused a whole host of maladies that now afflict our society than with television or video games.

So is it okay to let her play whatever she wants as long as she knows games are games and not real life?  It’s really hard to get around certain gut reactions, particularly in the wake of the recent elementary school shooting, which has many people vilifying anything having to do with guns.  Unfortunately, we’re a very black-and-white society and are very poor at navigating the gray areas.  They’re just too messy.  We like clear cut answers, and there just aren’t any when it comes to the really big societal issues.  Like guns and violence.  We’d really like a convenient scapegoat to blame, like video games.  It would be so easy, and would give closure to the awful gaping wound.  I don’t think it’s that simple, though.

So what’s acceptable violence in a video game for a kid?  Is it okay to involve a person as long as you’re not killing them?  Or is person-on-person violence always straight out?  Is all killing not okay, or is it okay to kill as long as you’re killing monsters?  Is it okay to kill a person as long as it’s not using a gun?  Is all violence okay because it’s not real and you’re supposed to be educating your kid about these things anyway?  Is all violence not okay because it’s not okay to depict violence?  Are all of these things defined only by our societal morals and nothing else?  I have very wise friends who say that they are.  I have equally wise friends who say they are not.  My Buddhist morals tell me that what I put into my head directly correlates to what comes out of it.  It also seems paradoxical to tell a kid that it’s not okay to hurt other people and then let them play a game that allows them to do just that.

What am I, and all parents, really afraid of when we have these discussions about video game violence and our kids?  We’re afraid of our own kids having aggression problems at school, and deep down, we’re afraid of them turning into Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (the Columbine High School shooters).  Or Adam Lanza.  Statistics tell me these fears are patently ridiculous.  At least, the last one is.  The first one is only mildly possible, if the research is to be believed.  Like so many ‘scientific’ studies, most of the ones that say there is a correlation between violent video games and aggression in kids have severe methodological problems that, once adjusted for, negate their results.  Still, I have a really hard time getting around my gut reaction when I think about my kid playing a game involving building an arsenal of semi-automatic and automatic weapons intended to kill as many enemies as possible, even if they aren’t human.  Maybe if they were all plasma rifles or something, it wouldn’t bother me.

On the other hand, we’re huge Mythbusters fans, and boy do the Mythbusters like their guns.  Always under safe circumstances, of course.  We’ve seen them shoot a huge array of firearms over the years and have gained an appreciation for the engineering of guns, as well as the fact that it’s plainly enjoyable to shoot them, just as it’s fun to blow shit up.  No, that doesn’t mean that the Mythbusters are condoning acts of terrorism or violence because they like explosives and firearms, and I don’t think it means our daughter is in danger of becoming a violent person because she is exposed to these things through their show.  It does raise the question: what’s the difference between the Mythbusters blowing up an effigy of a person in the name of busting a myth and someone shooting a representation of a person in a game?  Both end in the same result: a dead un-person (though it’s admittedly a lot funnier to watch Buster get blown up than it is to watch a zombie get its head blown off, but maybe that’s a matter of opinion).

I bet a lot of this has to do with perspective, as well.  Would I feel differently about video games involving guns if we were a family that regularly went to the shooting range? Or lived on a farm and had grown up with guns?  Or lived in a country like Switzerland or Israel where a high percentage of the population owns a gun?  Or lived in a place like Newtown, CT?

As with the music, I will probably let our daughter play what she wants to, but with supervision, and within certain limits.  Each game will likely be evaluated individually.  I learned she had been playing Call of Duty at a friend’s house after she came home and talked about how much fun it was to fire off an AK-47.  I made a polite phone call and requested the games with gunfire not be played when she comes to visit.  In retrospect, it wasn’t so much because of the guns, but because that game is all about hunting down and shooting people, which is something I will never be okay with.  The more distanced it is from real life, the less I mind it.  And isn’t that what video games are supposed to be about?  A break from reality?

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