A concerned parent reached out to me recently and asked a very important and thoughtful question. She shared that her son, a middle school student, was actively involved in the student-led activism around the country that called on leaders to address the current spate of highly publicized events of gun violence. Like many families, hers talks openly about issues and seeks to make life choices that reflect their values and conscience. She went on to share that her son, like many adolescent boys, is enamored with a relatively new online game called Fortnite.
For those who don’t know it, Fortnite is a violent role playing video game, not unlike others that have come before it. It’s the hot new game and it’s very attractive to our young children, especially boys. Imagine the conscientious mother’s confusion when her compassionate son participated in activism around gun violence only to return to his computer after school to play Fortnite--a game whose purpose it is to kill virtual people with guns.
Maybe you too are struggling with the reality that your child--a thoughtful and kind individual with a budding sense of personal identity around what is right and what is wrong--is so attracted to a game centered around guns and violence.
Fortnite is not the first violent video game that will spark concern and it won’t be the last. I’ve been asked similar questions about other video games. As a parent of three boys, I understand the fear and the desire for an answer or some tips on how to address the issue of violence in video games with our children. I wish there were clear answers. Unfortunately, I don’t know that there are.
What we do know is that even with decades of research to access, it is still somewhat hard to make a predictable causation from virtual aggression and violence to physical violence in the real world. While the tendency towards aggression after exposure to violent media has been well documented, physical violence, especially lethal violence, has not been categorically linked to violent media. Does this mean there is no role for the parent to say, “Hey, this isn’t okay with me. This isn’t who we are or who we want you to be?”
Unequivocally, the answer to that is NO. There is a role for parents to play and regardless of a lack of causal relationship between engaging in virtual violence and becoming a violent person in “real life,” there are many reasons to consider the impacts playing these games have on young, developing minds.
I advocate that parents take an active role in the virtual/digital lives of our children whether it be related to social media or video gaming. I don’t advocate for a total ban on much, although I completely support a parent’s right to do so and hope for their success in the process. My experience tells me, though, that not all parents are interested in complete bans and that actually banning something so attractive and pervasive as social media or video gaming can actually backfire. So, what’s a parent to do?
In 1998, the most comprehensive assessment of screen violence was completed. It estimated that the typical child will have seen 8000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence (including rape and assault) before middle school. While shocking to me, more shocking is that this study only included television; in the ensuing 20 years the platforms for children to experience violent images have increased exponentially. It is my belief that the frequency of access to incidents of violence (which includes role playing video games) is something parents should monitor and manage. Our best efforts simply cannot immunize our children from seeing violence. In my mind, if it’s futile, it’s not worth trying. The alternative, I believe, is twofold: first, we need to engage our children in conversation around the violence they are seeing and experiencing; second, we need to provide agreed upon (between you and your child) boundaries within which this violence is seen and experienced.
What this requires is that we actually know what our children are into and doing. Do you know if your child knows about, likes, or is playing Fortnite? If not, you might want to ask. If they are or even if their friends are, I would suggest googling it as soon as you are done reading and “liking” this blog entry.
Beyond knowing, we must engage. This takes time, energy, and purpose. If your child is playing it, have they played in front of you? Have you played it with them? Have you asked them how it makes them feel and why they enjoy it? Have you shared with them how it makes YOU feel that they play it? If not, start there. Then begin the conversation with them about how often and under what conditions you are willing to allow them to play this game and what signs you will watch for in them that will tell YOU whether or not their playing the game is impacting who they are becoming as a person.
I imagine that some of you, after reading just a little bit more about Fortnite, might reconsider your child’s ability to play the game. You might read about how Fortnite was accessible through a porn website during an outage at the company, or that a parent recently lamented about almost losing her son to Fortnite, or that Fortnite was forced to eliminate one of its weapons because it was simply too controversial. It would be totally within the realm of reason for you to present your child with the information you have learned about Fortnight and say, “This is not okay in our home or in our family and here’s why…” and then to say they may not play this game.
If you take this approach, I encourage you to do the following:
For those parents who believe forbidding your child to play Fortnite might backfire or that your child is mature enough to handle the game (both reasonable personal conclusions), might I suggest that you have found a great “carrot” to use when discussing what behaviors you want to see your child exhibit at home and in school? If they want to play Fortnite so badly, start talking to them about what it is going to take for them to be allowed to play it. Use the game to your parenting advantage.
In addition to using access to the game as a carrot, the three most important steps you can take as a parent should you allow them to play the game are to…
Whether it’s Fortnite, social media, a new group of friends, or any other outside influence that you are concerned about, your child’s behavior is the best guide to knowing how they doing. Rather than recommending prescriptive approaches to parenting, I encourage you to see how your child is behaving. If they continue sleeping, eating, and interacting with their friends, school, and other activities normally, they are probably handling their exposure to video games appropriately. Even a child who can’t wait to come home and play Fortnite is probably fine if they are actively participating in the rest of their lives in a healthy way. Adolescent children can usually distinguish between reality and fiction, so as long as they aren’t exhibiting violent tendencies then they are probably able to engage and disengage with their game in an acceptable way. However, if your child becomes withdrawn, irritable, exhibits more aggression, or you notice any other changes, then video games or the amount of time spent in the virtual world may be something you need to address.
And finally, keep asking questions--of me, teachers, your pediatrician, other parents, your parents, and children themselves. For my money, the most crucial factor that leads to individual and collective wellbeing is community. When our children feel connected, protected, and loved, no matter how much they protest the attention, they will surely find healthy outlets for their emotions and end up leading us all to a more compassionate, less violent future.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.