Incredibly Popular, Super Violent: What Parents Need to Know About Kids and Squid Game
Squid Game, the gruesomely violent South Korean series that’s become a Netflix megahit, is clearly not appropriate for children. But that isn’t stopping many kids from being exposed to it.
Teenagers are bingeing episodes of the show in which characters compete to the death in a series of games. Younger kids have been spotted playing copycat games on the playground.
It’s notoriously difficult to keep kids from seeing adult shows that explode the way this one has. Kids hear about something that sounds exciting and feel left out or uncool if they haven’t seen it. And Squid Game is all over TikTok and YouTube, not to speak of show-themed games on Fortnite and Roblox.
Parents are struggling with how to respond to younger kids who are begging to watch it. Should you watch it with them? And is it okay for teenagers to watch?
No one should watch Squid Game until late adolescence — with or without parents sitting next to them, recommends David Anderson, PhD, the head of School and Community Programs at the Child Mind Institute. It’s too violent for children and tweens, he argues. And if they protest the show being banned, he suggests helping them understand why you are making that choice.
“The level of violence is horrifying — more than most shows,” says Dr. Anderson. “It’s a murder fest with the premise that out of over 400 participants, there can only be one survivor.”
Dr. Anderson dismisses the idea that the show is redeemed by offering commentary on income disparity. The appeal of the show is all adrenaline rush, he adds. “It’s people who are desperate competing to the death for the amusement of the ultra rich.” It’s rated not appropriate for kids under 16.
Common Sense Media notes that Squid Game has strong acting and sleek production values but is extremely violent and very weak on positive messages or positive role models. “Parents need to know that the level of violence is very intense in Squid Game. Characters are systematically tortured and killed for the sadistic pleasure of a game master. Adults have sex, and there are threats of sexual violence: Women are grabbed by the hair and beaten. Themes concerning the highs one gets from gambling, winning, or conning money are a main focus.”
Common Sense Media acknowledges that it will appeal to some: “Fans of dystopian thrillers will enjoy this series. Sensitive or younger viewers should avoid this one.”
Of course teenagers are famously drawn to dystopian fiction, which often seems to resonate with their experience of their lives as a high-stakes competition. Almost 10 years ago, The Hunger Games was also a huge hit. But The Hunger Games was based on a young adult novel, intended to be consumed by teenagers. Yes, competitors were killed in those games, too. The Hunger Games was far less violent and had positive role models — including the teenage heroine Katniss Everdeen — and positive messages.
If teenagers are going to watch Squid Game, it makes sense to watch with them, to understand what they’re seeing and reflect on the content. But whether or not you do that, Dr. Anderson recommends talking to them about it, as you would any disturbing content. He suggests focusing on how it makes them feel.
In part the purpose would be to identify kids who are having recurring, unwanted thoughts about things they saw in the show, or images that have stayed with them. Those kind of things can become triggers for anxiety and are a good sign that kids should stop watching because the show isn’t healthy for them.
But the broader purpose is to prompt teenagers to think about how the show makes them feel, and to make good choices about what they watch. If Squid Game is thrilling to watch but leaves them feeling drained and down, they might want to choose instead things that leave them feeling better.
Dr. Anderson notes that when they watch can be a relevant issue. “Watching a disturbing and suspenseful show like Squid Game at night can interfere with sleep, and that in turn can mess up your performance on that science test or in that soccer game the next day.”
He also notes that teenagers tend to make better decisions about screens and content during the day. They’re more likely to reflect on whether something is healthy to watch. They’re also more likely to be pulled away by other responsibilities or get called to dinner, so the spell is broken. We all tend to be less inhibited late at night, when we are tired and alone, he notes, which makes us vulnerable to bingeing rather than sleeping.
If your kid wants to watch a show famous for its “mature” content, encouraging them to make mature decisions about when to watch it is appropriate.
And, as always, do your best to model this advice, too — and tailor your watching habits with an eye to the message you want to send.