Last week, the national headlines in the US centered around the unthinkable. A pair of twelve year old girls attempted the brutal slaying of a friend and classmate in order to impress a fictional internet character. Not being a fan of that genre of entertainment, I have to admit that the “Slenderman” character, along with such horror sites as Creepypasta Wiki were all completely new to me. But as a parent, its influence on this pair of children (who will be tried as adults, it seems) is frightening. I can’t imagine sending my daughter to something as innocuous as a sleep-over party and the next day visiting her in the hospital, not because of any type of accident, but due to a pre-meditated senseless attack by those who she considered friends. The mere possibility chills me.
Some of the media reports mentioned the ability of children to discern between reality and fantasy. Studies indicate that children as young as 2 1/2 years old understand that there is a difference, but it can take many more years to properly categorize things that they observe. I cannot remember ever having problems discerning between reality and fantasy, but that doesn’t make the consumption of disturbing images any easier. I once merely (accidentally, thank you click-bait) read a synopsis of the film “The Human Centipede” and it was enough to thoroughly disturb my train of thought for the better part of two days. I’m not bothered as much by the fictional concept of such horrors as the realization that somebody, perhaps even a room full of people, sat around for weeks attempting to develop such a demented tale, and did it to entertain people. These horrors are an invention of the human brain, and it bothers me that the human brain is capable of such things.
Having said all of that, I can appreciate that people have different tolerance levels for gore, shock, and even concepts that I would consider deranged. The question that I ask, and one that has been hinted at for as long as I can remember, is whether those levels of tolerance are being collectively raised by continued exposure to gore, shock, etc. as a form of entertainment. Desensitization. As we grow more intertwined with technology (the primary medium for this type of entertainment delivery), does fantasy begin to feel more and more like reality? What role does gaming play in this gradual societal shift? As a (much) younger man, I can remember being a bit shocked and disgusted by the pixlated gore of the original DOOM games, but I played them, anyway. Also, I never felt that they affected my ability to recognize fantasy. Still, come to think of it, the more realistic blood splatter in the Call of Duty games no longer phases me like it probably should.
When I was young, I would tend to scoff at attempts to blame “the media” for desensitization of the youth. Back then it was typically the evening news or rock n roll bands that received much of the negative attention. I laughed it off as “old people” trying to pin down something they didn’t understand. Anybody else have a great-grandparent who wouldn’t walk in front of the television half-dressed for fear that the people on the other side (or worse, the little people in the box!) might see them? But as I have aged, and have learned to care for others more than myself (the biggest benefit of having children), I do worry that the frog is slowly being boiled. To paraphrase the best line from Jurassic Park: in western society we are typically so focused on what we can do, that we don’t collectively stop to consider whether it is something that we should do. If there is a demand, and people will pay money for it, you can bet that a supply will eventually pop up. The more often that supply shows up, the more widely accepted it becomes. The more widely accepted it becomes, the less shock value it holds. The temptation to “one-up” previous offerings grows. The cycle repeats.
Does this ‘blurring of the lines’ along with the pressure to entertain people with increasingly escalating shock, gore, and twistedness indeed interfere with a the ability of a developing child to correctly categorize elements in the world around them into either reality or fantasy? Many will point to parenting as the guiding force that can help in this regard. I do agree that it plays a part, but the realities of the times make it very difficult for a parent (or even a complete set) to single-handedly guide a child through the flood of data that they are expected to process on a daily basis. I can speak to this first-hand. I work in the IT industry, am familiar with security techniques, and have taken many, many precautions to protect my children in this regard, but there is no such thing as 100%. The reality of it is that not only are there holes and cracks in every security deployment, but also my children (gasp) occasionally leave the confines of my house. In the latter case, every single safeguard I’ve dreamt up can be thrown out the window. So, as much as I’d like to believe I can shelter my kids from all of the creepypasta’s and slendermen out there (not to mention the real people who are actual threats), the responsibility cannot lie squarely with the parents.
I don’t have an answer. Morality is a tricky thing, and I realize that many people don’t agree with mine. I guess I just wish that we could raise our kids in a safe environment where they could choose their desired form of entertainment once they’ve matured to a level that such a choice is truly theirs and not forced upon them by the flood of words and images that they are bombarded with every time they open a web browser.
#violence #desensitization #kids
Pasta image by Ferran Jordà on Flickr Creative Commons
Doom image by SARS Ninja on Flickr Creative Commons
Featured image by Maja_Larsson on Flickr Creative Commons