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A few days ago, I learnt from our two daughters that children in their school are playing their own version of Squid Game in the playground.  A quick check with other parents confirmed that the same thing is happening in schools across Nairobi.

Squid Game is a South Korean survival drama television series on Netflix that revolves around a contest in which 456 players who are deeply in debt play a series of children’s games for the chance to win US$38 million in prize money, or to face death if they lose.

Schools and education authorities across Europe, the US and Australia are already issuing warnings to parents against allowing their children to watch the series. Most have gone on to ban re-enactments of the games in the series within the school.

The series, which has been streamed more than 111 million times since it debuted last month, is rated TV-MA (adult audience) by Netflix for language, violence, sex, nudity, suicide and smoking. Although the show has become hugely popular, the scale and level of violence is as deeply shocking as it is vivid, with players eliminated in the most gruesome ways.

A council in the south of England this week wrote to parents and guardians of school children warning of the dangers of “replicating games from the Squid Game programme” and urging parents not to allow children to watch the series. This was following reports that very young children are copying its violent challenges. Similar warnings have been issued by a school in Sydney, Australia, after reports emerged that children as young as six were mimicking Squid Game in the playground.

Early this month a school in Belgium reported that children had been caught playing versions of “1,2,3 Piano” and other games from the show. To mimic the show’s outcome – where contestants are killed after losing – children are also “beating up the loser”, the school said.

Red Light, Green Light 

A major factor behind Squid Game’s success as Netflix’s biggest show is the appeal of its twisted take on traditional children’s games which, though varying from country to country and continent to continent, are immediately recognisable to adults and children alike, and deeply resonate with them.

Take for instance the game of Red light, Green Light in Episode 1 of the series. This classic children’s game is a variation of “statues” where one person stands on one side of the field facing a group of players on the other. Facing away from the group, the lone player says something as fast or as slow as they wish, and then shouts “red light” as they turn to face the group. The group can only move when the lone player shouts “green light”, turns to face away and continues to repeat the phrase. If they are caught moving when the lone player turns to look at everyone and shouts “red light”, they are out. If the group of players reaches the other side without getting caught out, they win.

But there’s a horrible twist in the Squid Game version: losing a game means that you’ll be killed.

In Kenya, it is highly likely that these new games are yet to catch the attention of school authorities and there have been no reports in Africa’s media that Squid Games has entered school playgrounds on the continent. But it is clear that children are already playing these games at break-time as our daughters have confirmed.

A major factor behind Squid Game’s success as Netflix’s biggest show is the appeal of its twisted take on traditional children’s games.

Last week, Ikorodu Bois — a Nigerian online comedy group — published a video parodying the Squid Game version of Red Light, Green Light to much online applause. Triplets Ghetto Kids — a  Ugandan foundation for orphans and street children —  also posted a video showing some of their kids dancing to recreated scenes of the Red Light, Green Light game fused with African beats and dance moves. Masaka Kids Online – a group of young, multi-talented kids from Uganda released a song and dance video titled Green Light last week, a creative re-enactment of scenes from Squid Game, complete with the sounds and visuals of firing guns and dropping bodies.

Effects of such violence on children

The violence in the series has been described as dark and gory, yet it has become one of the most streamed shows ever, spreading through social networks such as TikTok and YouTube and reaching very young children. As the Conversation noted, 

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 heavily meme-ified. This doll often features in video thumbnails for Squid Game-related children’s YouTube content.

I spoke to Dr Claire Omolo, a clinical psychologist based at the Nairobi Mental Health Services, to find out what the effects are for children exposed to such violence, if parents should be concerned, and what they can do about it.

Experts on digital safety agree that it is quite difficult for parents to moderate what kids watch or access online. According to Dr Omolo, what is important is for parents to have conversations with their teenagers and young children in order to understand what they are watching and why (it could be just due to peer pressure or FOMO – fear of missing out), what the programme is about, what it is depicting, the level of violence, and the consequences of violence.

On the effects that watching such violence can have on children, Dr Omolo noted that children who watch violent programmes sleep less or not as peacefully as those not exposed, and that this lack of quality sleep can have an impact on their performance and on their interaction with their peers.

Research also shows that there is a correlation between watching violence and the display of more aggressive behaviour among children as they become less empathetic to the suffering of others.

While speaking on This Morning, a show on British TV network ITV, Psychologist Dr Nilufar Ahmed noted that parents could use the Squid Game phenomenon as a teachable moment for children who have already watched the series to learn about the other themes explored in the series: betrayal, friendship, capitalism, modern inequality, exploitation.