Kids Are Playing 'Squid Game' at School—Should Parents Worry?

Squid Game became the first Netflix show to surpass 100 million views in its first month on the service. But it's not for kids. That doesn't mean they aren't aware of it, and now they're re-enacting the violent games on the playground. Experts weighed in on whether parents should be worried.

Netflix has a new hit on its hand. Squid Game, a South Korean drama TV series, is part Survivor, part Hunger Games, and completely binge-watchable—for adults.

The show, which premiered in September, follows 456 players trying to get out of debt as they compete in children's games like tug-of-war and red light, green light. But though the games are similar to the ones we played on the playground, the series is violent. For example, in the first episode, anyone caught moving during "red light, green light" is shot dead.

Not surprisingly, Squid Game is rated TV-MA, meaning for mature audiences only. Yet, kids all over the world have caught on, and they're now playing Squid Game versions of their one-time harmless childhood games on the playground.

In Belgium, one school reported some kids beat their classmates up after eliminating them. An online safety expert in Belfast in Northern Ireland alerted parents to the need to turn parental controls on after learning reports that school-age students were mimicking the show's violence. A Florida school district warned parents about students trying to hurt each other while replicating scenes from the show at school. And a New York school district, where elementary school kids have been reenacting the show's games at recess, has banned the students from wearing Squid Game Halloween attire "because of the potential violent messages aligned with the costume."

How concerned should parents be, and what's the best way to talk to your kids about the new phenomenon? Experts weighed in.

Why Are Kids Interested In Squid Game?

Children often engage in observational learning. "This essentially means they imitate behaviors that they see by watching others," explains Rebecca Cowan, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, the owner of Virginia-based Anchor Counseling & Wellness, LLC. She adds these observations include what they see on TV or in video games.

Even if a child hasn't seen a single episode, variations of other people copying Squid Game episodes are on social media. And other students in the class may have watched it at home with or without their parents or older siblings. From there, it moves to the playground and may look like fun.

"The games in Squid Game are made to appeal to kids and adults," says Karen Aronian, Ed.D., a parenting and education expert. "For starters, they are, in fact, kids games from our youth."

Dr. Cowan adds that the desire to be accepted by peers can also entice kids to play along.

Should Parents Be Concerned About Squid Game?

Dr. Cowan says the answer to this question depends on how the children are playing the games. A non-violent version of red light, green light doesn't require intervention, but she says it's concerning if the children are either pretending to act out the violence or physically hurting one another.

But if they aren't physically hurting another person, is playing or watching Squid Game really different than when many of us, as parents, played cowboys in the backyard or with army action figures? Fights break out during NHL games. Football involves tackling someone to the ground and, sometimes, though against the rules, helmet-to-helmet contact.

"Squid Game has repetitive extreme violence throughout, and other shows might just have one or two scenes," says Dr. Cowan. "Repetitive violence has been shown to lead to increased violence and aggression in children. Additionally, this content can be traumatic for some to watch, leading to increased anxiety."

Dr. Aronian adds that athletes are given protective gear and are penalized for breaking the rules, emphasizing how any violent activity in sports is different.

What's more, if a child is pretending to shoot another or physically hits or punches them while mimicking the show, it could lead to disciplinary action within the school and physical and mental harm to another student.

Dr. Aronian also worries that the plot kids may be acting out as part of the game—people who have fallen on economic hard times engaging in life-threatening competitions—is an unhealthy message for children. "The message seems to be that physical violence is the solution to economic inequality," she says. "The opposite is what we so desperately need—peace, love, and understanding."

How To Talk To Your Kids About Playing Squid Game

Though parents may be alarmed to learn their child is playing Squid Game, Dr. Cowan suggests using it as a teachable moment. "Parents can use this as an opportunity to talk to their children about violence and the importance of treating their peers with kindness," she says.

Dr. Cowan suggests using "I" statements, such as, "I worry about how playing these games may impact you now and in the future. It's important that we always treat others with kindness. I love you, and I'm trying to protect you." This approach helps prevent kids from feeling they are being blamed.

And if parents want to dig a little deeper, Dr. Cowan adds, "The parent can also ask open-ended questions about the child or teen's feelings or thoughts about playing these games. For instance, 'Tell me more about your desire to play games from this show.'"

Are the Warnings From Schools and Experts Helpful?

Schools are warning parents, but is it helping?

One South London parent doesn't think so, tweeting, "Our primary school sent a letter to parents telling us not to let kids watch Squid Game, and held an all-school assembly telling the kids not to watch Squid Game. Result? Children who really want to watch Squid Game."

While they may pique a student's interest in the show, Dr. Cowan thinks it's important school officials communicate with parents. "Children do not grow up in a bubble or vacuum," Dr. Cowan says. "For this reason, I think warnings are important because some parents are unaware of the show and should be given information about it, especially when schools notice trends such as children talking about the show or imitating what they have seen on the show."

Squid Game's Rating: What Age Is Appropriate To Watch?

People's maturity levels vary, even if they are the same age, Dr. Cowan points out. But generally, she says the program is not suitable for anyone under 17 years old. The Child Mind Institute, an independent nonprofit dedicated to children's mental health and learning disorders, wrote an article saying, "no one should watch Squid Game until late adolescence—with or without parents sitting next to them." Common Sense Media says "the level of violence is very intense," "characters are systematically tortured and killed for the sadistic pleasure of a game master," and "there are threats of sexual violence."

If younger children are interested in watching because their friends are, Dr. Cowan says it's another teachable moment. "Parents can talk to their kids about [how] what may be acceptable in one family might not be permitted in another," Dr. Cowan says. Again, she says "I" statements, such as, "I feel worried that you might be too young to watch this show, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on this, too," help in this instance as well.

If teens are going to watch Squid Game, the Child Mind Institute, says "it makes sense to watch with them, to understand what they're seeing and reflect on the content." In the article, David Anderson, Ph.D., the head of School and Community Programs at the Child Mind Institute, says that whether or not parents watch along, they should be talking to their teens about it and focusing on how the content makes them feel.

And though the conversation may be difficult, Dr. Aronian says it's ultimately important to set boundaries. "Kids want limits and to know parents care," she says.

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