You Have the Power
In her May 1st segment "Are Video Games Ruining Your Life?", Katie Couric blew it. She reduced the complicated issues of parenting, psychology, and violence in media to a bumpersticker-slogan solution.
We've had this conversation more than once over the years. So rather than reflexively taking her out behind the rhetorical woodshed, we took some time to gather up our facts. Hopefully, as a parenting veteran and [according to my editor] "expert in parenting in a gaming household," I can bring up a couple points from my experiences, and, most importantly, point out some tools and resources people can use to decide how they want their household to run.
People are not robots. As much as we would all like the sort of simple, universal controls that robots promise, there is rarely a universal answer that we can apply to a given problem across all of human existence. The simplistic "garbage in, garbage out" model breaks down immediately when applied to actual human beings. Countless people raised in underprivileged environments have created satisfying, successful lives for themselves. Meanwhile, plenty of the privileged have squandered every advantage given them.
It's not a simple matter of counting the number of blood-splatters a child was exposed to before they were measurably damaged and calculating risk. It's not a matter of evaluating ”good” exposure versus “evil”; puppies and kitties cannot be weighed against virtual trigger-pulls and fantastical sword swings to reach some sort of empirical magic number for safe media consumption. Each child interprets and contextualizes media input in his or her own way.
I don't understand why Couric chose the case of Daniel Petric, the boy who shot his parents, as an example of anything she was trying to espouse in this segment. The laundry list of other problems in Petric’s life is long and heart-breaking. She pays these myriad problems little lip service, instead placing the blame on video games. However, the evidence and expert testimony presented in the court case clearly demonstrate that video games were not the root cause of Petric’s psychological issues.
This isn't the first time that demonizing video games has failed miserably as a defense tactic. It didn't work for Devin Moore, even with the strident antics of a certain Florida-based ex-lawyer doing his level best to drive the false connection between gaming and violence through the media and the courts. It's not a concept unique to video games, either. The Beatles are not considered responsible for Charles Manson's behavior, no matter how many times Manson listened to "Helter Skelter" — backwards or forwards. Nor is Jodie Foster to blame for John Hinkley, Jr.’s attempt to get her attention by shooting Ronald Reagan. Petric is facing the consequences of his actions, just as these others who have tried this defense are.
Without an underlying problem of some sort, it doesn't matter on a practical level what influences a person, because a healthy, well-adjusted person has the skills to integrate any influence into the rest of their life's context, and the only practical effect is enrichment brought on by either the good or bad experience. The process of learning how to manage the balance between "have to" and "want to" is part of growing up. However, in cases where negative influences skew the perceptions of a child who has no support system to properly lend context, the results are unpredictable. Both of the boys Couric used as examples in this segment had documented mental health issues. Additionally, their families failed to give them the tools and support to manage proper context with reality.
That said, even perfect families and the best of care sometimes aren’t enough to stop a tragedy. We have to be careful here. Blindly blaming parents is just as bad as blaming video games. Parents are, at best, the littlest fairies at the christening. Now, I'm not in any way suggesting I know the one true way to parent; my adventures raising my kids (particularly my younger son) through their teenage years included plenty of hair-raising (and hair-graying!) moments, some that we still can only laugh nervously about before we quickly change the subject.
But that's not a get-out-of-jail-free card for parents. I hear about the way these kids played video games for days on end and it baffles me. I assure you my kids have never played ANYTHING for even one day straight. Heck, I wouldn't let them read or study 24 hours straight, even though some people would consider that good for them. As Tycho from Penny Arcade put it, "I try to imagine a scenario where my son would play video games unsupervised for three solid days that didn’t culminate in my removing his door." That people can look at a situation where a kid is in a room by him- or herself doing any activity for days on end and blame a game for the resulting tragedy simply does not compute for me.
But what do we do!?
The worst part of the whole thing was the sense of helplessness she left the viewers with. Parents have the power to do a great deal of good, and there are plenty of tools and constructive guidance out there.
I'm not an "expert" — except in the sense that I raised four kids (one of whom is "special needs") to independent adulthood, and I'm a gamer. I have been playing games since before they needed power to run. I grew up playing games. My ex-husband played games. Our friends of both genders played games. I started out with pen-and-paper games in 1980 with three of my best friends. When computers came along, they simply joined my repertoire. And when the children arrived, I realized pretty quick they were going to want to play too, and that we needed to think that one through.
From that experience I can say definitively that vague generalities, formless fears, and burying your head in the sand like Couric promulgates are not ways for you or the child to make it through this whole thing sane. Let me share a few things I've found:
- Openness helps manage a host of ills. My own solution to them sneaking onto the computers when they should be doing something else started out with not having any game systems in the bedrooms. All the game systems and computers were out in the middle of the house, visible from the couch and the kitchen. That included my computers — not only in a "sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander" sort of sense, but with it set up that way I could be involved in what was going on in the house while I was working, and they could see me modelling good media-management skills. I'm not saying every family can do that, but that's how my family worked and I can vouch for the way it helped us negotiate the pitfalls of this internet age.
- Whatever is available has to be under your control. Having it out in the middle of the house is one step, but technology is where the real win comes in here. You don't have to be an electrical engineer to make it work, either. Every modern console from the Xbox and PS2 on up has a set of features built in called Parental Controls, which can allow you to limit certain functions of the device to match your household rules. They're not all the same, but they are there. If you learn to use them, the game system itself becomes your ally in enforcing your household limitations.
The APA has also suggested using technology to limit content.
And that was back in 2003. There are quite a few new and better tools available to parents now. In the Resources section below you'll find some overall information and links to instructions on how to use them all, or feel free to ask here in the comments for help.
- Some parents don't think they can impose limits because the child owns the hardware. Well, the parent owns the internet connection and the electricity, if nothing else. Start with that if it helps you get your arms around how to manage this stuff in your house. I solved the "it's MINE!" argument on several levels by the simple expedient of owning all the hardware in the house. I wouldn't have the kids buying a toaster for the household, so why would they be buying the entertainment hardware for the living room? When they got to a certain age they were free to buy their own (and their own internet if they wanted to do something I didn't approve of on it). None of them ever did, because they all figured out very young that it was far more allowance-cost-efficient to just invest in the games they wanted within the content limitations that were in place and use my hardware. Now that they're grown, they still come over to my house to play.
- Moderation is key to any pursuit. My mother, frantically trying to crochet her stress out while dealing with her cancer, needs to manage her yarn consumption and the effect using the hooks that long has on her arthritis. My grown and married younger daughter and I had to manage jobs and households while powering through over 60 hours of Studio Ghibli's Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch together when it came out. Despite the way the game engrossed us, neither one of us shorted our jobs or families (though I will admit it helped that her husband enjoys cooking).
- I'm not a proponent of the no-screen-time APA guidelines, but you do need structure. I had very strict rules about media consumption, both in terms of content and duration. Our baseline was half an hour at a time, and following the age recommendation of the applicable ratings organization for all media. I would grant exemptions on a case-by-case basis, after I'd watched/played the content myself. The kids progressed through hard-coded levels where the rules were designed to expand to reflect how they grew and changed over the course of their childhood and teen years.
- By far the most important part is to communicate with your children. Pay attention to what they do. Play with them. Talk to them. Listen to them when they speak. Even the APA admits that the bad things they see with media consumption can be overcome by the parents watching and playing along with the child.
Again, this is not new information. They started publishing this in 2003. It is amazing how the pundits and other supposed authorities love to quote the dangers of media using the very document I got these quotes out of, but somehow never manage to see or comment on these parts right on the front page.
That all seems simple, but it takes a lifetime to carry out, and we still have new adventures with it every day. I can't describe all of that in this small space. I have shelves full of books describing how to pretend to live a life. Imagine how many more words it would take to describe an actual one?
I want to add a giant thank you to kcander and Wordsmythe for their help in putting this together. - Momgamer