Games: Over-protecting children makes them no safer
I allow my 16-year-old daughter to play the 18-rated Xbox game Grand Theft Auto. So should someone call the cops? That's what certain schools in England are threatening to do, if they find out that under-age pupils have been playing cult games like GTA and Call of Duty.
Headteachers have written a warning letter to parents, informing them that to allow under-18s to have access to these games constitutes neglect, and may thus be reported to police and social services.
Yes, you read right: neglect is the very serious charge being invoked here. The principals also claim that playing GTA and the like "increases early sexualised behaviours in children" and "leaves them vulnerable to grooming for sexual exploitation or extreme violence".
Oh please. We are talking about video games, not early learning sessions for gangsters and porn stars. If teachers want to report parents to police for suspected harm or neglect, why don't they tackle the real stuff: signs of physical or sexual abuse, signs that kids have been left to go cold and hungry, signs that they may have been exposed to actual - as opposed to virtual - violence at home? These are the serious blights on childhood which have the capacity to warp, endanger or even entirely wreck young lives. Allowing teenagers to have a little illicit joy-stick fun simply doesn't compare.
Look, my daughter works hard. She's conscientious. She gets good grades. When she comes home from school, she sometimes likes to wind down with a session of GTA. Yes, it's brutal and nihilistic and violent. (It's also smart and satirical and cinematic, but that's another story.) Sometimes that's just what you need after a long, frustrating day. A little bit of escapism, a thrilling distraction from those relentless academic demands. I don't expect her to start stealing cars any time soon.
Because this is fantasy, not reality, and most people - teenagers included - can tell the difference. No matter how many times we're told how lone psychopaths like the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik are inspired by games like Call of Duty, this simple fact remains: there has never, ever - despite years of in-depth and wide-ranging research - been a proven link between violent on-screen content and violence in real life. And you know why? It's because there isn't one.
It's a different matter, of course, when it comes to younger children. I'm sure we can all agree that it's not healthy or desirable for a 10-year-old to be exposed to hardcore adult themes. But I still refuse to buy the hysterical and empirically-unfounded line that playing these games automatically turns kids into paedophile-bait, or predisposes them to become power-crazed crime-lords. And whatever the age of the child, it's a really bad idea for teachers to automatically shop parents to the authorities. Such arrogant strong-arm tactics are disrespectful; they break trust and destroy goodwill. They only serve to alienate and antagonise people, treating them like misbehaving children themselves, in need of state correction. If there is real cause for concern about inappropriate gaming, the first call should be to the parents, not the police.
This absurd over-reaction by the English head-teachers is part of a much wider paranoia about what constitutes acceptable parenting, which increasingly results in punitive responses by zealous officials. There have been many worrying instances. One man, Tim Haines, left his two-year-old daughter on her own in the car while he nipped into the chemist to buy Calpol for her. He was away for 10 minutes. When he got back, there were two policemen waiting for him. Haines was subsequently arrested, prosecuted and convicted of child cruelty.
Leaving a two-year-old child alone in a car, even for 10 minutes, is a stupid thing to do. But did Haines deserve to end up with a cruelty conviction? Of course not. Being a dozy dad is not a crime. Thankfully an appeal judge saw sense and overturned the verdict.
We are at risk of getting risk out of all proportion. Behaving as though children are constantly under dire threat and must be protected at all costs - even if it means criminalising their own parents - is irrational and, ironically enough, doesn't actually make children any safer. Rather, it teaches them to be fearful, mistrustful and confused. We're raising kids with the belief that nowhere, not even home, is safe. And that's infinitely more harmful than hot-wiring cars in the fantasy world of Grand Theft Auto.