Last night, my 10-year-old son was sitting at our kitchen counter shoveling in spaghetti after baseball practice when he started in with an all too familiar topic. “Mom, can I get Fortnite?”
Although I was mid meatball, I still managed an unequivocal “no.”
“Mom, you do realize that I am the only boy in the grade who doesn’t have it? Do you know that at lunch when all the boys are talking about the newest Fortnite update, I’m completely excluded from the conversation? Do you understand that this really sucks for me?”
The desperately-wanting-to-fit-in seventh grade girl in me felt the sting of the word excluded.
My son continued, “I understand why you object to guns. I know you think that playing these games desensitize people to violence, but that will never happen to me. I just want to play the video game with my friends. How about I write you a persuasive essay on why I should be allowed to have the game?”
I laughed at the thought of my resistant-to-writing son volunteering to draft an essay. But I have to admit, in that moment, I felt compelled by my son’s thoughtful analysis and sensible argument. As a former prosecutor, I appreciated that he was able to pull at my heartstrings, while coolly articulating his point.
For a brief moment, I let my mind wander to what would happen if I gave him the game. But I quickly shifted to the words of my 7-year-old after an active shooter drill.
“Everyone was smushed under the desk when a boy farted. I started to laugh, but forced myself to stop by thinking of that terrible thing. Then I felt like I was going to cry.”
Here’s the stark truth in 2019. Statistics show an sickening uptick in gun violence. Educators and psychologists are reporting an increase in hateful conduct and a decline in emotional intelligence, specifically empathy. The headlines of male violence take up so much space they are beginning to blur together.
As a women’s rights lawyer who has spent my career picking up the pieces in the aftermath of male violence, I am fearful for my daughter. But frankly, as a parent, I am more worried about my son.
The pressure on boys is immense. The mixed messages we are sending are not just confusing, but damaging. We tell them to “be sensitive,” but demand that they stop crying like a baby. We expect them to respect and value girls and women, but criticize their abilities with phrases like “you throw like a girl.” We tell them to dominate and win at all costs, but expect them to “be kind” and play fair. We advise them violence is not the answer, but allow them to spend countless hours playing Fortnite, a highly addictive game where the primary objective is shooting to kill in an effort to survive.
Our children are being inundated with these contradictory messages, while trying to navigate a reality that is nothing short of horrifying.
In every school across the country, our kids are being shoved in supply closets and cubbies as a strategy for survival. Even our littlest students understand that these are not made up scenarios, while trying to grasp the gravity of the unthinkable. For parents, routine active shooter drills are nothing short of unnerving. We can no longer wonder if the next gun tragedy will occur, we can simply hope that it comes nowhere close to our most precious people.
Yes, I know— video games do not cause mass shootings. Fortnite has a cartoony feel. It shows no blood and gore. It allows players to play together. That’s what other parents have told me while trying to convince me that it’s “not so bad” and “all the kids are playing.”
But after working with thousands of students across the country, I am far more compelled by the words of Catherine Hallissey, a child and educational psychologist: “Many studies… have shown that playing violent video games is associated with real-life aggressive behaviour and less pro-social behaviour.”
Sure, like all parents, I want my child to feel included and fit in. But can I really allow my son to sit in the basement playing violent video games with friends who scream “kill him!” while other parents’ children are dying?
As parents, drawing lines and setting limits can be complicated. Violent video games are a “no,” but are violent movies a go? You can play it at a friend’s, but not in my house. With violence, pornography and hate at everyone’s fingertips, there’s no doubt it’s hard to know exactly what issue is most pressing and when to restrict.
But in this moment in time, giving our kids access to what everyone is doing feels like a fast and furious race to the bottom. Making hard choices about what to give and what to restrict feels hard, but essential. I imagine it is easier when parents crack open complicated conversations with one another and band together.
So here’s where I land. With the summer months approaching, I am not-so-secretly hoping Fortnite fever disappears into the abyss. Perhaps some hot, new baseball video game will become the newest craze? And if doesn’t, I can promise this won’t be the last time that my kid doesn’t get what everyone else is getting. Or maybe next time, he won’t be the only one.