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Parents alarmed as 'Squid Game' violence filters into playground games

Illustration picture shows children in the playground during a visit to the 'Ecole fondamentale Notre-Dame du Rosaire' school in Bressoux, Liege, on the occasion of the first day of the new school year, Monday 02 September 2019. (BELGA PHOTO BERNARD GILLET)
05:56 13/10/2021

Squid Game, the Korean television series which has become a global phenomenon via Netflix, is having an influence on children’s lives despite the show being targeted at people aged 17 years and over.

Parents at a number of Belgian schools have been alarmed to find out that the games played in the survival series, in which desperate contestants play children’s games for money with violent death often the consequence of losing, are being replicated in the playground by young kids.

Children have been playing their usual games, such as "1,2,3 Soleil" – which is featured in the series as a game called “red light, green light” – but in some instances, losers have been getting slapped or whipped rather than just simply being eliminated. In Squid Game, contestants approach a murderous puppet after it calls out “green light”. When the doll shouts, “red light,” the contestant must freeze before the dummy turns around or they’ll be shot dead.

One seven-year-old girl from a school in Dinant came home crying to her mother one day, and then explained that her usual game at break had ended with her being slapped across the face.

"All the losers were slapped," the girl’s mother said. "She didn't understand it at all. For her it was a normal game. She came home crying, and she said, ‘Mum, I took a slap while playing.' Then she explained to me that she was playing 1,2,3 Soleil," she added.

"She does not know Squid Game; she has seen no clip or anything. I do not understand why so many small children play this when it is a series forbidden for their age. I'm afraid my daughter will come back with big bruises."

Despite the series being aimed at an older audience, clips of certain scenes have been shared on the Tik Tok social network, making it more accessible to younger children who have access to the platform. Others have been exposed to the show either by older siblings and friends, or even by their parents who have allowed their young children to watch the violent show.

"Some parents are very lax and do not see the evil in this game but for me, it removes the innocence of the children," says the mother of the Dinant pupil. “My daughter said that no one defended her and that this goes on in hidden corners, so the playground supervisors do not always see it.”

At the municipal school of Erquelinnes-Béguinage, in Hainaut province, similar scenes have been played out with losers of the playground games being whipped.

Following the events, teachers talked to the children to make them aware of the dangers of this kind of behaviour. "We had to act immediately," said Maélys Lequeux, a teacher in 5th and 6th primary classes at the school.

"We gathered the children, we talked. We explained to them that it was dangerous, that it should not happen again in a playground or even at home. They questioned themselves. I have seen some remorse. I think now they have understood."

Many children between the ages of 11 and 12 at the school admitted to watching the series. "The series is very gory, with a lot of blood," said one, while another said: "The series is cool but to remake it in real life, it can hurt or even kill."

"Thankfully there was no serious injury, but it's already dramatic for the children,” said Sabrina Caci, the school's director. “Children come to school to be safe, not to be beaten."

The school issued a warning to parents via its Facebook page: "We are very vigilant so that this unhealthy and dangerous game is stopped. We count on your support and collaboration to make your children aware of the consequences that this can entail.  Sanctions will be taken against children who continue this game."

However, some parents admitted it was hard to regulate what their children were watching or accessing on social media. "My daughter has a TV in her room,” said one mother. “I can't check everything she's looking at." Another mother added: "For me, it's not 'only' the fault of Netflix, it is society itself that is going so badly wrong. Everywhere, people are becoming aggressive, whether in shops, or on the street."

Psychologists are also concerned about the trend. "Children are sponges, they can learn a lot of things but can also copy them,” said Caroline Depuydt, doctor and head of department at the Epsylon psychiatric hospital in Brussels. “What is special about this series is that it takes up the codes of children's games such as 1,2,3 Soleil. And the children who have seen the series tell themselves that they can reproduce it since they usually play this game. Children learn by mimicry and group effect. The speed of action against this is very important."

She added: "In general, we can distinguish between the real and the fictitious. But a seven-year-old doesn't see the difference. It is in adolescence around 12-13 years old, that we are finally able to do it. And then it develops throughout adolescence."

For Bruno Humbeeck, an educational psychologist at the University of Mons, the recreation of the events on Squid Game in the playground comes as little surprise. "Child's play by nature presupposes adherence, which is to say that we do not force to play, this is the very principle of the game,” he said. “It also assumes that play is taken seriously. Children have this ability to take games seriously. But games never lead to serious causes. In the series, the participants are in everything but a game. And so, we have a game that is completely perverted from its function."

"It's not the series that creates the problem,” he added. "The real problem is, can we allow children to hit other children in a playground? Can we allow them to even threaten to strike? Obviously not, because the school must be a society. These laws exist in the adult world and must be passed on to schools."

Written by Nick Amies