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Commentary: Squid Game violence has crept into online content targeting young children

Parents are being warned about children copying games and violence and this might be due to the Netflix show’s presence on social media, says a media researcher.

Commentary: Squid Game violence has crept into online content targeting young children
Father and daughter play the Squid Game at a park in Goyang, South Korea, Monday, Oct. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

MELBOURNE: The dystopian South Korean horror series Squid Game has become Netflix’s most watched TV series, but it is quickly becoming as controversial as it is popular.

The latest controversy to arise around Squid Game, restricted to viewers over the age of 15 in Australia, relates to the interest it has sparked amongst young children. This includes warnings from an Australian school that children as young as six are recreating games featured in the dark and gory hit show.

A council in Southern England recently sent an email to parents urging them to “be vigilant” after receiving reports “young people are copying games and violence” from the show. In Australia, similar warnings have been issued by educators in Sydney and Western Australia.

In Squid Game, characters compete for a cash prize by participating in challenges that augment classic Korean children’s games, with the “losers” being killed at the end of each round.

Further emphasising the show’s twisted take on child’s play, these games are staged in highly stylised arenas, such as an adult scale children’s playground. After each challenge, these traditional children’s play spaces tend to be left soaked in blood and littered with piles of corpses.

PERVASIVE PRESENCE ON YOUTUBE AND TIKTOK

While the recent warnings urge parents not to let their children watch the violent show, their awareness more likely relates to its pervasive presence on social media, which has extended to viral content on TikTok and YouTube, popular with teenagers and children.

Squid game in Roblox (Screengrab via Youtube/Jelly)

The show is certainly a craze within children’s digital cultures. A number of successful channels on YouTube Kids, designed for those under 12, have capitalised on the Squid Game trend, including “How to Draw” character videos and themed Roblox gameplay videos.

Roblox, a popular videogame with kids, enables users to program games and share them with other users. Squid Game has become a very common theme in these user-programmed games. Many Squid Game Roblox videos have hundreds of thousands or even millions of views.

On both the kids’ and main version of YouTube, videos aimed at children feature people - often children - playing these Squid Game-inspired games in Roblox, with the “Red Light, Green Light” challenge emerging as a particularly popular trend.

This challenge is also a trend on TikTok, with people emulating the game in a vast variety of real life settings and in videogames.

The “Red Light, Green Light” scene has become one of Squid Game’s most widely shared moments: The giant animatronic doll that acts as a deadly motion sensor in this game has been used in many Internet memes and often features in video thumbnails.

Most of these YouTube Kids videos are quite innocuous by themselves. However, they show how Squid Game has crept into digital content explicitly targeting young children.

MURKY BOUNDARIES BETWEEN ADULT AND CHILD-ORIENTED ONLINE CONTENT

Given the show’s bright, childish aesthetics and focus on playground games, it is perhaps not surprising that viral online content appeals to children. But the boundaries between adult and child-oriented content online have always been murky.

YouTube has been at the centre of a number of controversies regarding inappropriate content aimed at children.

TikTok has faced similar controversies related to children’s safety on the app and problematic content being watched by children, such as anti-vaccine videos. Tik Tok allows full access to the app to children aged over 13 but reports show children much younger are using it. Alongside YouTube, TikTok is currently facing a United States senate hearing on kids’ safety.

After a historic fine of US$170 million was imposed on YouTube by the US Federal Trade Commission in 2019, sweeping changes were introduced to make the distinction between adult and children’s content clearer on the platform.

For instance, creators must now inform YouTube if their content is for children and machine-learning is used to identify videos that clearly target young audiences.

Despite these changes, YouTube remains a very different beast to broadcast television, and content popular with children on both the main and children’s version of the platform often differs markedly from kids’ TV.

Children’s YouTube content that riffs on Squid Game characters and scenes continues a longstanding trend of “mash-up” content for children on the platform.

Like Squid Game content, mash-up videos harness trending themes, search terms, and characters – often featuring popular characters in thumbnail imagery and video titles.

Adult anxieties about the show’s malign influence on children build on earlier concerns about this mash-up content, but also about children’s interaction with the web more generally.

The rising global panic about children’s participation in Squid Game challenges echoes a phenomenon in 2018 and 2019: A photo of a sinister figure – actually of a Japanese sculpture - became associated with the moniker “Momo” and went viral online.

An international news cycle emerged about Momo, claiming the creature was appearing in children’s content on YouTube and encouraging kids to participate in deadly games and challenges.

As is now occurring in relation to Squid Game, in Australia and beyond, official warnings were issued to parents about the Momo Challenge, advising them to be vigilant. It soon became clear the this was most likely a viral hoax.

Momo embodied parents’ worst fears about the dangers of children’s internet use. Concerns about Squid Game’s influence on children have a similar tenor: these fears may not be a response to actual dangers, but a manifestation of our discomfort with how easily adult-oriented media can seep into online content aimed at young children.

The unruly tentacles of Squid Game’s inter-generational appeal show how streaming media challenges existing conceptions of child-appropriate content.

Jessica Balanzategui is a Senior Lecturer in Cinema and Screen Studies at Swinburne University of Technology and a researcher for the Centre for Transformative Media Technologies. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

Source: CNA/ch

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