Squid Game’s cultural tentacles leave teachers with a dilemma
Crazes rampage through schools like a drunken party crasher, getting everyone worked up for five minutes before sloping quietly out the back door, destined to become nothing more than a tiny footnote in our collective memory. At secondary school in the late 1980s and early 1990s, my teachers must have been driven to distraction when everyone was slinging around Coke-branded yo-yos with all the skill and restraint of a toddler in a bouncy castle. And they must have been holding their noses during the proliferation of Global Hypercolor T-shirts, those heat-activated garments that changed colour mainly around the places where your upper body was most likely to sweat profusely.
Recent years have seen the brief ascendancy of fidget spinners and bottle flipping, but most crazes can be filed in the “annoying but relatively harmless” drawer.
A new two-word phenomenon may, however, be a different matter: Squid Game.
Netflix says it is its most popular-ever programme and, certainly, plenty of pupils will tell you “everyone” is watching it. As a much-read Tes article by Glasgow primary teacher Nuzhat Uthmani underlined last week, we are not just talking about secondary students – there are plenty of six- and seven-year-olds claiming to have seen it.
It seems that thousands of children have collectively hoodwinked their parents into letting them watch Squid Game by insisting that “it’s just like The Hunger Games”. But while that is true of the basic premise – protagonists are forced to kill each other for the entertainment of others – the presentation is very different: the lingering gore and unremitting sadism of Squid Game is not a feature of the Hunger Games films, which genuinely are aimed at a teenage audience.
We should temper any concerns with a dose of reality: not every child who claims to have watched Squid Game will actually have done so (some will have pretended to so they don’t feel left out) and there is a bit of moral panic about what is essentially a 21st-century spin on 1980s “video nasties” – how many children were truly damaged by watching A Nightmare on Elm Street too young?
And Squid Game is, we should not forget, a brilliantly made programme with a clear moral centre that provides a fascinating insight into South Korean society and culture – for older secondary students, there could be merit in discussing its dark themes in class. That said, it has saturated children’s spaces in ways that many will find worrying. It has been dominating online gaming platform Roblox and there are reports of pupils imitating the warped versions of school playground games that feature in the series (whose Red Light, Green Light challenge would be like What’s the Time, Mr Wolf? if the losers actually got mauled and disembowelled by the wolf).
Uthmani believes teachers cannot let it slide if pupils are watching Squid Game. It’s not about dictating what families do in their own homes, she says, but about teachers being more aware these days of what baggage children bring with them to school.
As she puts it: “Experiences outside the school gates have an impact on a child’s development as much as experiences inside do – we can’t really separate them.”
Uthmani is frustrated by regularly hearing of children watching and playing content not designed for them, which she fears could be linked to mental health, emotional and social difficulties. She does not feel this is something teachers can ignore.
It may not be a message welcomed with open arms, given all the workload issues facing teachers. But, with such a vast amount of online content flowing unfettered into homes and mobile devices, it’s a conundrum that teachers may be faced with more and more in the years to come.