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Kids are playing ‘Squid Game’ at recess – now what?

UPDATED: Sun., Oct. 24, 2021

A woman, center right, wearing a Halloween “Squid Game” costume and hired by the organizer, plays a game with children at a department store as part of a Halloween event in Bangkok, Thailand, on Friday. “Squid Game,” a TV series produced in South Korea for Netflix, is very popular in Thailand.  (Associated Press)
A woman, center right, wearing a Halloween “Squid Game” costume and hired by the organizer, plays a game with children at a department store as part of a Halloween event in Bangkok, Thailand, on Friday. “Squid Game,” a TV series produced in South Korea for Netflix, is very popular in Thailand. (Associated Press)
By Whit Honea Washington Post

“Squid Game,” Netflix’s massive global hit produced in South Korea, might feature playground games, but it is most obviously not for kids.

The ultraviolent show, which follows 456 debt-ridden adult characters as they fight one an other to the death for a chance to win millions of dollars, is too gruesome even for many adults, much less children.

Think “Survivor” meets “Lord of the Flies” meets “Dodgeball” and “The Hunger Games” reimagined by Quentin Tarantino.

But some young Hwang Dong-hyuk fans seem to have missed the memo that “Squid Game” is not for them.

The games on the show based on classic playground games like tug-of-war and red light, green light are popping up on real-life playgrounds again, distressing parents, educators and development experts, many of whom are wondering how these kids heard about the show in the first place.

To be clear, kids in real life aren’t invoking the penalty of death that is so crucial to the show. But reports suggest violence is still playing a part, with bullets replaced by punches and other aggression.

So, perhaps there is cause for concern when a show featuring red light, green light, but with a murderous motion-sensing doll and walls of hidden snipers, serves as recreational fodder for the milk carton set.

Schools in Australia have asked parents to make sure their kids don’t watch the show (thereby ensuring kids will watch the show). Parents in Northern Ireland are being asked to ensure their parental controls are locked in the “on” position.

And many caretakers are scratching their heads over how this incredibly violent show, meant for people ages 15 and older, made its way so quickly into kids’ imaginations.

“I don’t think it is entirely that different for kids and adults as a phenomena,” said Hina Talib, director of the Adolescent Medicine Post-Doctoral Fellowship Program at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York.

“It is a social spark that spreads fast, and kids and adults alike want to be included. That’s human nature. Certainly, kids can be more susceptible to it.”

“ ‘Squid Game’ should not be viewed by kids less than 16,” Damon Korb, behavioral and developmental pediatrician and clinic director of Center for Developing Minds in Los Gatos, Calif., said.

“It is gratuitously violent, and these images have the potential to desensitize people to violence. Children are particularly vulnerable.”

Thanks to hugely popular TikTok and YouTube videos, not to mention show-themed games on Fortnite and Roblox, “Squid Game” is reaching kids long before they see it trending at No. 1 on their Netflix homepage. Netflix says the show has reached the top 10 in 94 countries.

For many kids who get caught up in the buzz of “Squid Game” and other overnight social whirlwinds, that is all of the contact they may ever have with the show – a moment of belonging created entirely by being peer adjacent, often several times removed.

“Children have active imaginations, which they use creatively in play and to learn,” Korb says.

“Point them in a direction and they can develop an active fantasy world, making it easy for children to experience a pop culture phenomenon without seeing it firsthand.

“I have had several patients that had nightmares about ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ despite having seen just an image on the Internet or never viewing it at all.”

Parents might want to view “Squid Game” if not to prevent children from watching it, then at least to talk about it because even if you haven’t heard of the show, there’s a good chance your kids have.

My 15-year-old binged it immediately, and he insisted that the rest of the family watch it, too. I watched it all in one night, primarily for this article, but also to see what kind of “language, violence, sex, nudity, suicide, smoking” rabbit hole my kid had gone down without bothering to ask for permission.

Is this something parents need to worry about? Let’s stop for a minute and think about our own days of playground roulette.

Consider the game red rover, where one kid was invited/pressured to run into a chain of arms and inevitably dislocate a shoulder, bloody a nose or sprain a wrist. Red rover was a daily lesson in my own mortality, often leaving children prone on the ground, gasping for air and vowing revenge. And what about crack the whip? Football?

Now that we’re parents, those games do seem dangerous, particularly if we want our kids’ windpipes to remain intact. But back when we were kids? It was glorious. We played it as violently as playground supervisors would allow, and most of us weren’t even in debt.

Sure, the games we played might not have been based on a hit TV show. But survival was real. And so, you might want to check out the nonviolent versions of the games in “Squid Game.” Chances are, your kids are very interested, too.

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