Crowbarring their way into the family home
The UK government’s campaign to colonise family life is nearly complete: it is now telling parents to remove video games from their children’s bedrooms.
In Britain, as part of an effort to prevent children from playing games that are ‘unsuitable’ for their age, a legally enforceable cinema-style classification system is to be introduced for video games. This will make it illegal for shops to sell classified video games to a child below the recommended age (1). The Brown government’s clampdown on violent video games has ugly echoes of the ‘video nasties’ panic unleashed by the Conservative government in the 1980s.
Back then, the authorities’ belief that if children watched slasher-gore horror flicks they would turn into crazed psychopaths was routinely ridiculed by opponents of the Conservative government. That was because the notion that watching violent material somehow damages people has always been one of the flimsiest panics around. Indeed, even as New Labour tries to rehash the old monkey-see/monkey-do censorious attitude in relation to violent video games, it is forced to admit that there isn’t much hard evidence to suggest that children will grow up to be more violent if they watch Driller Killer or play Manhunt 2.
Unfortunately, however, in today’s ultra-suspicious climate, these old arguments about violent material turning out violent young people are more likely to get a hearing, because individual and increasingly parental autonomy is held in even lower esteem than I Spit On Your Grave.
The driving factor behind this return of the creakiest and hoariest of moral panics is not so much violent video games, but rather concern about the remaining free space between parents and children. Ostensibly, the government’s proposals to restrict youthful access to violent games are targeted at retailers, who will face a fine if they sell bloody games to underage kids – yet more fundamentally, it is being used as a way for the authorities to crowbar their way into the family home. Government ministers are ‘advising’ parents (that is, piling the pressure on them) to keep computers and games consoles out of children’s bedrooms and instead allow children only to play such games in the living room. So determined is the government to colonise every aspect of parenting and family relations that it is now peering even into children’s bedrooms, and tut-tutting about what it sees there.
In this sense, outlawing violent video games is a transparent cover for eventually outlawing the existence of truly free personal spaces inside the family home. Given that this government frequently shifts from ‘offering advice’ to threatening coercive action against those who refuse to follow it, these latest moves to kick consoles out of kids’ bedrooms are clearly more frightening than any computer game.
The implication of New Labour’s hectoring advice on games consoles is that stupid parents do not know what is best for their children. Instead, the authorities themselves must dictate what is appropriate for young people, and even what their bedrooms should look like and contain. Indeed, New Labour has made the social control of children and teenagers a central plank of its Respect policies and its ‘politics of behaviour’ because it recognises that this is a device for controlling and monitoring parents – that is, the adults in British society.
Last week, home secretary Jacqui Smith unveiled proposals for new ‘parenting contracts’, which would be served on mums and dads whose underage children are caught drinking. The contracts would ban parents from allowing their children to visit certain areas or places at stipulated times, and would hold them responsible for preventing their children from consuming alcohol. If parents breach these contracts, they could find themselves before the courts and can be fined £1,000.
It is true that teenagers frequently seek out the thrills of illicit cigarettes and booze – that is a reflection of their impatience and aspiration to enter the adult world sooner rather than later. It is simply not possible or, more importantly, desirable for parents to keep a constant tab on what their teenage children get up to. Enacting ‘parent contracts’ against people whose children drink is to punish parents for things that are, and shall always be, largely beyond their control.
Yet the message of the anti-teen drinking contracts is clear: parents are inadequate slobs who need to be instructed in parenting skills by the powers-that-be. Jacqui Smith says of parents: ‘The idea that you can hand your kids a six-pack of lager and tell them to disappear off for the evening – with no thought to the consequences – is frankly baffling to me.’ (2) But there is no evidence that huge numbers of parents are forcing their offspring to guzzle beer every evening. Rather, Smith’s comments about parents (which, notably, caused far less controversy than her comment about walking alone through London) are underpinned by New Labour’s unsubstantiated and pretty vile prejudice that everyday parents are bestial and depraved and thus should not have the final say on how they bring up their children.
At school, too, children are increasingly being socialised to believe that their parents are dupes and dopes who shouldn’t really be trusted. Consider the furore over the content of children’s packed lunches. As part of New Labour’s crusade against fatty, sugary food and fizzy drinks, some schools now rifle through children’s lunchboxes, confiscate contraband items, and write letters of complaint to unthinking parents. This implicitly breaks a quite sacred bond between parent and child: a mum or dad lovingly packs their child’s lunchbox, only to have it ruled unhealthy by a teacher or other school official. This sends the message to children that the authorities know better than your mother how to bring you up.
As someone at the coalface of schooling at the moment, I can see the emergence of a new generation that looks up to the authorities for constant guidance and permission on basic matters. The one group of people teenagers certainly won’t be seeking approval from is their parents. Instead, parents are increasingly seen, in cultural, political and media debates, as individuals who are failing to provide the correct healthy and moral guidelines for the next generation in open-prison Britain.
There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that children who play violent video games will grow up to be violent psychopaths. Nor is there hard evidence that parents hand out six-packs of Carling and tell their kids to ‘get on with it’. However, these stories are themselves evidence of an increasingly demented and nasty mindset amongst government officials, who seem to view most parents as low-life scum in need of short, sharp fines or worse. It is an outrage for officials to barge their way so brazenly into the parental home and order that parents pack away their kids’ computers. Who the hell do they think they are? It’s time, surely, that we zapped New Labour’s encroachment on parental autonomy before they take their draconian measures to the next level.
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.
Rob Lyons asked who’s afraid of Manhunt 2. Graham Barnfield denied that there is a link between video games and violent behaviour. Helene Guldberg called for an end to the Supernanny state and said that the modern world isn’t damaging our children. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.
(1) Ministers plan clampdown on ‘unsuitable’ video games, Guardian, 9 February 2008
(2) Parents targeted over teenage drinking, Daily Telegraph, 7 February 2008
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