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Help! My child has been reaped

Millions of children are already possessed by The Hunger Games trilogy, now the first movie is on its way. Has children’s media become too addictive - and too violent?

By Carol Lloyd

As a premise for a children’s book, it may be the most perverse ever. Each year on “Reaping Day,” kids between 12 and 18 are drafted by lottery to participate in a reality TV show that the entire dystopian world of Panem is obliged to watch. Two chosen children from each district are whisked away to the Capitol, where they’re coiffed and styled into iconic eye candy, coached toward mediagenic self-revelation, and finally dropped into an arena mined with natural disasters and scarce resources to play “the game”: killing each another. The winner? The last child alive.

Violent? Definitely. Allegorical and deeply meaningful? Depends on whom you ask. One thing not in dispute is that The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, which has been translated into 26 languages and has more than 26 million copies in print, is a recipe for addictive reading, not to mention bonanza profits. (Advanced tickets for the movie of the first book, to be released March 23, have already sold out, trumping sales for the Twilight series.)

Mainlining literature

The Hunger Games is just the latest triumph of blood and gore to hit the children’s literary market. In recent years, the rabid passion for zombies, vampires, and wizards has added countless rows to the growing library of kiddy crack lit. We all want our children to be great bookworms, but as I watched my sixth grade daughter descend into virtual-mayhem mania, I had my misgivings.

For weeks after my daughter finished the books, she behaved like a “muttation” roaming the arena — a man-mutated creature programmed with diabolical intentions. Snarling at her family’s attempts at normal communication, she’d retire to her room where we could hear her chortling in her own private Panem, re-reading compulsively, reliving lines, “STUPID, Katniss, that was so STUPID!” In public, she remained possessed, muttering ad nauseam apropo of nothing: “Oh my God, Haymitch! How could you?!”

Turns out she’s not alone. One fellow Hunger Games fan compared the book to the “cocaine of literature,” contending that it should come with a warning. Novelnovice.com, a website dedicated to showcasing young adult literature, is one of several sites chronicling “Post-Panem Depression” with symptoms such as trouble concentrating, flashbacks, irritability, and tendency to re-read certain passages.

Sickened by the concept of the Hunger Games, I was nevertheless eager to keep the lines of communication open with my budding tween (the only line suddenly available). So I broke down and read the books. The result was a weird cocktail of pleasure and discomfort. Collins has a knack for the deft image, the comic plot twist, and her portrait of Katniss — the young huntress who volunteers for the Hunger Games to protect her little sister Prim — shimmers with contradictions that make her both an ideal action hero and an excellent everyteen: strong yet confused, emotional yet guarded, courageous yet as my daughter puts it: "a dork." Even so, I had to squint through a lot of the violence — which included the heroine pawing through the warm chunks of flesh of her recently departed friend, a young man slowly being mauled by wolves, and kill scenes like the following:

“The boy from District 1 dies before he can pull out the spear. My arrow drives deeply into the center of his neck. He falls to his knees and halves the brief remainder of his life by yanking out the arrow and drowning in his own blood.”

When I informed my daughter that I wasn’t a fan of such scenes, her eyes shone with renewed zeal: “You don’t like the violence, Mommy? You really don’t like it?” Suddenly my sensitive child seemed a lot less sensitive for her reading experience.

Next page: Is all reading good reading?

Is all reading good reading?

And that’s when I really began to question the value of these books. Is there a threshold, after which our willingness to sink literary talons into young readers is actually a point of no return? Now that the YA category is being popularized among preteens, children’s literature includes a lot of books ostensibly not written for children.

In my family of peacenik iconoclasts (scant TV, no violent movies or video games, ever) my daughter eschewed the fourth and fifth grade reading obsessions that tore through my daughter’s peer group: Harry Potter, Twilight, The Uglies. We got no reprieve, of course, from the class-assigned books that seemed equally hell-bent on using violent extremes to engender a love of reading. In The Breadwinner, a children’s novella about life under the Taliban, the two young characters follow a crowd into a stadium thinking they are going to see a soccer match but instead watch a thief get his arm chopped off and a stray dog run away with the arm in his mouth. Then they read Zach’s Lie, about a kid whose family is stalked by thugs when they enter the witness protection program after his drug-running father flips for the CIA. In all these books there may be educational arguments — the depiction of violence teaches kids something about politics in another country, or um, best practices when dealing with Columbian cartels. And indeed, as an anti-tyranny epic with a strong female protagonist, one could argue that the blood in The Hunger Games isn’t spilled in vain, but has a higher purpose in the service of a nonviolent message.

Yet as I watched my 12-year-old become lost in Panem, I couldn’t help wondering what the hyperbolic violence was doing to her brain. In the online discussions about violence in children’s literature, an oft-stated defense is that it’s just a modicum of the violence children are exposed to from film, television, and video games. There’s no argument there — though it doesn’t apply to my kids. According to the American Psychiatric Association, by age 18 American kids will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 violent acts. And with the added bonus of violent video games like Call of Duty (where kids giddily earn points mowing down civilians who beg for their lives), there’s no doubt that violence is largely in the eye of the medium.

Does violent media beget violent kids?

There has been decades of research on the effects of violent media on children’s brains and just as many years of controversy about the results. For some the evidence is conclusive: according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the past three decades of “[l]ongitudinal, cross-sectional, and experimental studies have all confirmed [the] correlation between televised violence and violent behavior among youth. One 15-year study published in Developmental Psychology found that exposing children to high levels of media violence led to higher levels of young adult violent behavior regardless of socioeconomic status, intellectual capacities, or earlier levels of aggression. (Men described as high TV-violence viewers were more than three times as likely to have been convicted of a crime compared to other men; high TV-violence viewing females were four times more likely to have beaten, punched, or choked another person.)

Despite what some researchers conclude is overwhelming evidence that violent media has a significant negative impact on children’s brains, many of these studies were based on self-reported data and therefore subject to criticism. But recently with the use of MRIs, researchers are getting a direct picture of how different kinds of stimuli affect the chemistry of young brains. In one recent study, MRIs of adolescents who played violent video games contrasted markedly from those who played nonviolent video games. In the group playing violent games, the amygdala was more stimulated — the area of the brain associated with aggression and fear and there was less activation in areas of the prefrontal cortex (the region linked with self-control and decision making). In contrast, the group playing nonviolent video games used more of the pre-frontal cortex. Other MRI studies have found that repeated violent imagery leads to desensitization — that is, after a while violence isn’t really very alarming and doesn’t set off the same neurological response.

Does this mean children who watch, read, or play violent media will turn out to be sociopathic monsters? There’s no evidence of that. But we do know that violent media does affect the brain, in the moment and over the long term. “Although brain imaging studies are sparse at this point, the behavioral evidence that violent media increases aggressive behavior, thought, and emotions is overwhelming (we are looking at several hundred studies here),” explains Maren Strenziok, researcher of violent video games at George Mason University, adding that studies have found that the likelihood of showing increased aggression after exposure to media violence is about equal to that of getting lung cancer from smoking. “Nobody would deny that smoking causes lung cancer, but a lot of special interest groups have been downplaying the negative effects of violent media.”

So what’s a parent to do whose children like a steady diet of thrill ’em, kill ’em media? Strenziok is unequivocal. “My philosophy is better safe than sorry. Think about it, there is certainly no evidence that viewing violence promotes emotional health or contributes positively to their overall development. I think that parents are asking themselves the wrong question. Rather than trying to find evidence that their child will get away with no harm when being exposed to violent media, I think the question to be asked here is does it promote their child's development? I am sure that most parents would answer this question with no." For a rollup of myths and facts about media violence research by one of the leading psychologists who think the evidence is irrefutable, check this out.

Next page: Gory then, gory now

Grim children's literature since Grimm

But isn’t literature different? There’s little scientific study about the effects of violent books, perhaps in part because they are nothing new. As long as there has been children’s literature, there have been violent stories. One need only revisit the original Grimm fairytales or Aesop’s fables to fill up on grisly scenes of death and mayhem, all presumably crafted with a didactic purpose. There’s a rational argument that violence in children’s literature (and even other media) exposes children in a safe (and ideally instructive) manner to the violence that exists in the world and the dark realities they’ll face in adulthood. YA novelist Julie Hahnke offers a guide in assessing the violence in children’s literature  via four criteria: is the violence necessary, age-appropriate, not overly graphic, and do the main characters respond to it appropriately (shocked or appalled, not enthusiastic or casual)? In this context, The Hunger Games passes on the 1st and 4th of these, but not on the 2nd and 3rd.

Blaming any medium for the wholesale creation of societal ills is tough to argue. Logically, by extension, most Nordic countries — where there’s scant real violent crime but little censorship of the media — would be far more crime-ridden. On the other hand, even those who oppose censorship in their own children’s media diets have their limits. Few parents will show their five-year-olds Texas Chainsaw Massacre, no matter how leery they are about the effects of violent media on a child’s brain.

In the end, there’s no single right answer applicable to all ages or all children, but it’s worth looking at what your children are reading because even the school-assigned texts may be a far cry from the books that populated your childhood. In discussions of The Hunger Games, conversations revolve around whether the book is too violent for teens. But from my experience, it is being read by far younger kids. My daughter was introduced to the series when her sixth grade teacher read it aloud. And I recently read about a fourth grade teacher reading it aloud to his class, too. But concerned parents proceed with caution: the defenders of Panem are fervent.

On a Scholastic (also the publisher) forum discussing a mother who tried in vain to get The Hunger Games removed from her daughter’s middle school curriculum, dozens of commenters from Team Hunger seethed like angry trackerjackers. “I want to strangle that lady!” one devotee writes. Other fans attempted to prevent the argument from self-combusting: “I would just like to mention that saying you'd like to kill [the mother] isn't the best way of convincing her we're not being desensitized." Good point.

“You don’t like the violence Mommy?” That glassy-eyed question paralyzed me for a moment, but then I quickly saw that somewhere beyond those dilated eyes was my daughter, who wanted a real answer connected to a real conversation (from her Mommy no less). What could have been a moment of alienation for both of us turned into an opportunity — to talk and disagree and talk some more. And the value of that I don’t need any studies to understand.

Next: One R-rated movie you want might your child to see

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

05/22/2012:
"Adults making kids kill kids, and then enjoying watching the killing take place. When I saw the movie I was mortified. And the fact that this messed up, disgusting storyline is marketed to children is absolutely wrong in so many ways, no matter what underlying themes one can uncover. There have got to be better things we can be filling our children's minds with! "
05/3/2012:
"No I love the hunger games myself. Katniss is not trying to be violent she is just what she says " A piece in thier games" she doesnt want to be in the hunger games but she doesn't have a choice. Also Katniss only kills 1 person and that is only because he kills her Allie Rue. Don't you dare talk bad about that best-steeling book cuz ur out numbered! "
04/30/2012:
"I love The Hunger Games.And if you actually read the books and think it through it is more then killing one and other.Katniss is a great role-moldel for young girls like myself.She was the first to volunteer in District 12 alone.Katniss tells the readers that you should stand up in what you believe in and not letting people control your life.And she is much much better then Bella.And Jen is amazing as well.If you give the books a change you will get what I'm saying here.I mean it takes someone that brave to voulnteer for her little sister.<3 "
04/26/2012:
"YES!!! "
04/25/2012:
"Actually, there is one part of this article that is wrong. For the four criteria: 1. is the violence necessary 2. age-appropriate 3. overly graphic 4. do the main characters respond to it appropriately? The Hunger Games fits all of these criteria. The violence is not overly graphic, but is realistic. The book does not have pages upon pages of blood and gore, rather the violence is an after effect of people's choices. There's no Hostel or Saw in this book. And the book is age-appropriate. It is rated young adult. That generally means the age of 14-17. If the book was not age appropriate for your daughter (who is 12), it might mean she is not age appropriate for the book, not the other way around. In the end, The Hunger Games is encouraging reading AND without the profanity and sexuality that is prevalent even in school assigned reading now (really quite shameful), and with violence that delivers a message that is worthwhile. "
04/23/2012:
"i allowed my daughter to read it because she doesn't like to read but i am ok with it. "
04/16/2012:
"Thank God! Someone else is concerned about this violent series for children. I thought the entire world had gone brain-dead. You did a lot better than I did with the discussion with your child. When my 15 year old told me she wanted to watch the movie, and I read about some of the scenes, such as a little child being thrown against a wall until her neck broke, etc., I told her if she wanted to pay money to watch children killing children, we had failed as parents. I hope we can have a close conversation like you had with your daughter eventually. "
04/6/2012:
"First - for the person who compared the title to "rape".. you are an idiot. The title speaks to those in the know about the Hunger Games, as REAPING is the even where the children are chosen to participate in the Games. Next, I totally see why this world is going to fail, with parents like these in charge. Really, no tv? No video games? Complete censorship! I am a 20-something mom. I grew up with Harry Potter, I've read the Twilight series twice, and fell in love with the Hunger Games trilogy when the books began to come out. My 11 year old cousin is reading the series right now, and loves it as well. What is so wrong with exposing our kids to stories? Yes, it is a YA level, however the GENRE is dystopian! Personally, I love dystopian books so this is right up my ally (Along w/ the faith based series Matched!... but even with Faith I guess you hovering moms would take issue because GASP it's not all rainbows and butterflies). The point is, your kids are going to grow up, and either they enter our world as well-rounded human beings with the ability to enjoy being lost in a fantasy book (my favorite escape!) OR they have no idea how to live and participate because you censor every aspect of their formative years. Let kids be kids.... You can't control what they like!! Mom of 3 "
04/2/2012:
"I think a big factor missing from this discussion is whether or not the violence is condoned or celebrated. I have no doubt that violent games like Grand Theft Auto probably further violent attitudes in children by rewarding them for violence. The entire point of the book is how sickening The Hunger Games are, to miss that is to miss the point. To downplay the violence and make it "age appropriate" or "consumable" would be an even worse strategy in my opinion - that only teaches false outcomes to children, trivializing violence and suffering. While I think there is definitely an age where you are too young to read this series, it's certainly appropriate for young teens in my opinion, or children who have the maturity to understand meaning beyond plot. Helicopter parenting does no benefit to your child, they enter the real world one day or another and shielding them from reality is a great way to make sure the end up uninformed and locked in a suburban American view of the w! orld. "
03/28/2012:
"I am a teenage girl who is going into high school. I have read Haryy Potter books since third grade. Personally, I did *NOT* find the Hunger Games discussing or gruesome. The books are pretty well written, but not as disturbing as other books I have read. However, since I am an avid reader, I have seen some pretty messed up books(such as books that describe child slaves/prostitution, child armies, mutilation.) I do agree though that it is at the parents discretion to choose what is appropriate for the child, but please, just because you think the book is gruesome, it doesn't mean it is gruesome to your child. Before deciding to let your child read this book, you should judge their maturity on how you think they would react to some of the situations portrayed in the Hunger Games/Twilight/Harry Potter. "
03/26/2012:
"I understand the concern that violence in the media can desensitize young people to actual violence. However, I disagree strongly that The Hunger Games somehow glorifies violence. My 12-year-old is a very thoughtful reader who reads a wide variety of fiction. She reads discerningly and has a keen sense of when a book has content worth absorbing and when a book is merely a gimmick. Twilight for example held no interest for her. She and I read To Kill a Mockingbird together and she found it exceedingly interesting. She resisted The Hunger Games initially because the premise sounded troubling, but when she decided to read the book, she was drawn to the strength and emotional complexity of Katniss. My reading of the psychological literature is that there are benefits to children who live in safe environments to experience "fear" through literature and even movies to develop the emotional tools to recover. The world will bring them actual challenges at some point; our jo! b as parents is to help them develop the capacity for empathy and strength. I think The Hunger Games does both. My daughter suggests that The Hunger Games makes violence and governmental control terrifying and certainly not glamorous because characters she cared about are harmed. This is not to say that all children are emotionally ready at a particular age - but I don't think we do our children any favors by shielding them from intense emotions and experiences through books and movies. "
03/26/2012:
"The Hunger Games is NOT a reality TV show! It's to remind them of the sacrifices they made. They just happened to be on live TV. "
03/26/2012:
"Wow, this is the most paranoid article I have ever read. Ladies and Gentlemen, I've read young adult books ever since second grade, and I was the college valedictorian of my graduating class. I'm seriously fed up with strict, unrelenting adults unlike myself. Yes, I may sound impolite here, but unless your child isn't smart enough to realize there is a difference between reality and fiction - that's your problem. THE END "
03/21/2012:
"Very interesting article! I'm most interested in how young children are now reading books written for older teens, and how that's now expected, even ok. My daughter is in fifth grade. Only a few of her friends were reading Twilight/seeing the movie last year. This year, most of her classmates have read the book. I've read descriptions of the violence, and I just don't get it. Why is this appropriate for a 10 year old? I think sometimes that just because "at least they're reading" isn't good enough. I know my daughter is too tenderhearted to read this book, but I've agreed to let her read the first chapter or two to decide for herself. She will not be seeing the movie. I'M too scared to see the movie! "
03/20/2012:
"I can't help but wonder what Dr. Seuss -- or Dante -- might have to say, were they to speak about the 'low-hanging-fruit' phenomena that is associated with the motivation to create and execute this particular sort of marketing gimmick. "
03/20/2012:
"I read many of the books my precocious 11 year old reads. It gives us a basis to have deep discussions on life that she feels safe relating to. I read the entire series and thought that it was a wonderfully written good story, however, I would never let the 11 year old read this book. Too disturbing. I did recommend that my 15 year old read the book and we had some pretty deep discussions that the book opened up for us. The designation of young adult book seems too broad. I think young adult needs to be renamed YA -preteen, YA and YA - mature. I would put The Hunger Games Series into the middle category. "
03/20/2012:
"I agreee with this article. The book is an intense and unnecessarily violent read for young teens. Very disturbing read for me as an adult! The premise of teens not only trying to survive but some actually getting joy out of killing each other in the most gruesome manner is appalling!! Not my idea of a great piece of literature. "
03/20/2012:
"I have two children 8 and 10..They have not seen/nor read Harry Potter, Twilight, Lion King and have no desire to see nor read "The Hunger Games". For me "The Hunger Games" reminds me of "The Lottery", pop cult fiction back in my day. ....They are missing being trauamtized, I think..Nothing else...Is it worth it??/ I think not??? Thank you for validating my supporting my children in not wanting to see or read movies about violence. "
03/19/2012:
"I have two children 8 and 10..They have not seen/nor read Harry Potter, Twilight, Lion King and have no desire to see nor read "The Hunger Games". For me "The Hunger Games" reminds me of "The Lottery", pop cult fiction back in my day. ....They are missing being trauamtized, I think..Nothing else...Is it worth it??/ I think not??? Thank you for validating my supporting my children in not wanting to see or read movies about violence. "
03/19/2012:
"My daughter was given a copy of The Hunger Games for her 11th birthday. She is very well read and normally devours books. But after trying to read this book which she didn't like, yet all her friends are pressuring her to finish. She seems to be on a loop of re reading comforting books like The Penderwicks. I can't seem to get her to try anything new. I am a bit mad at The Hunger Games and will not let her go see the movie, which I don't think she wants to see, but her friends will try to get her to go. I pointed out to her friends, why would you want to see something like Nazi concentration camps for entertainment???? My daughter is reading about WWII in school with the book Step on The Cracks. I think the Hunger Games has killed her zest for books! Tomorrow, I'll take her to the library to hopefully have her find a new book, but why does media and so many books in school, make reading no fun???? I completely agree with Carol Loyd's article. "
03/19/2012:
"After reading this article my 15 year old daughter has an observation to make. "I don't think a 12 year old should be reading the Hunger Games series. It's clearly not for anyone under 14, and I don't think you should be judging the books as only about gory violence. It's more complex than her description gives. Maybe that mother should read the books before her daughter does so she can decide if they are books her daughter can handle. Don't criticize the books for a bad decision the mother made." "
03/19/2012:
"We opted at our home to not read it. My 10 year old's suggestion was for me to read it first, then decide. I'm *really* not into the adults-reading-kids-lit scene, and this storyline doesn't interest me in the least. Hopefully in a few years when she revisits it, she'll decide if she's ready or not. Definitely not now. "
03/19/2012:
"I know you are trying to be clever but the title crosses the line. Puns on rape are not funny and make it hard to overlook and focus on the article. "
03/19/2012:
"really,the message behing the violence is just that...look deeper, author. THisis anti war anti reality tv, promoting what is good in us, standing up for family and being an independent thinker....ohhhh I guess too danergous and violent for you..gag. "
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