I decided to write this after someone on my Facebook posted about how scared her child is about this game. I’m hearing about it a lot these days — in the anxiety groups, in sessions and in my own home.
Five Nights at Freddy’s is a video game that has both computer and app versions (for Kindles, iPads, etc.). The plot is this: You work at a place like Chuck E. Cheese where animatronic animals come alive at night. You’re the security guard. Your job is to stay alive over all five nights. The animatronics are murderous and the game relies on a lot of jump scares to keep you tense. Here‘s the whole back story if you want to read it.
Besides the game, there are a number of YouTube videos of people playing it with commentary. (My daughter wants me to tell you that there are “not scaries” of it, too, for kids who want in on the game but can’t watch videos with the scary parts. But there are still a lot of jump scares in them. If I had to watch a Five Nights at Freddy’s commentary video, I’d watch this animated one because it’s not scary at all.)
I’m hearing from kids that this is at peak attention right now (in fact, as soon as I publish this they will probably move on to something else terrifying because it’s so peak it’s probably peaked) but I’m talking about it because if you’re not aware of it you should be and because the issue of viral fear on the internet is going to be an issue whether it’s Slenderman or Five Nights or whatever else the kids are talking about that we’re not hearing about yet.
And that’s really what’s important to know here. In our day it was Ouija boards and Bloody Mary in the mirror at sleepovers and in their day it’s what the internet has to offer. The big difference is that the internet has the capacity to make things more real. People can create whole worlds online to populate their creepy fantasies, which makes urban legends feel a lot less legendary and a lot more like fact. (My friend on Facebook says that what pushed her child over the edge is that people have created a digital footprint for the pizza place featured in the game to help cement the idea that the whole thing is real. Here’s a kid who made a video about that.)
What I’m saying is that Five Nights at Freddy’s may be what’s happening now but the challenge is not Five Nights at Freddy’s. The challenge is helping our kids be critical thinkers, to manage their anxiety, to figure out how to curate their own internet experiences and to stand up to people out to scare them.
Middle grade kids have some developmental demands that make them particularly vulnerable:
- They are shifting to be more peer-oriented and independent, meaning that if their 10-year old friend says it’s true then his voice might carry a tad more weight than your voice of reason does;
- They become more aware of the wide, wide world and the scariness in it, which is why they may be fascinated by scary stories;
- Their bodies are changing and/or their friends’ bodies are changing and/or they’re becoming more aware of impending change, which may cause them to sublimate this fear into urban legends. Think about it, adulthood is for real and true pretty scary but kids can’t really verbalize this kind of existential fear. It’s a lot easier to be terrified of murderous robotic rabbits.
And now you see why Goosebumps were all the rage for middlegrade 90s kids, too, right? These fears serve a developmental purpose and many of our kids will need grown up help to meet that challenge and grow past it.
So what can concerned parents do?
Set limits: Learn about parental controls. Turn on YouTube safety mode. If you want to install a blocker then by all means do. You may want to create rules like screen time happens in community rooms of the house or that certain apps may not be installed on a child’s tablet. You decide and stick to it.
But be realistic: You can limit access to these games and web sites and videos but you do need to know that your ability to do this will be hampered both by the limits of parental control and by all the kids whose parents don’t block access. Between phones and iPods and Kindle Fires and family computers at someone else’s house, you need to expect that even the most protected child is going to catch sight of these things. That doesn’t mean you should throw up your hands and have a Freddy’s free for all. No, you can still limit it in your home because you’re not just trying to protect your child from the sight of it, you’re also modeling how we care for ourselves in the internet age. We are modeling that if something disturbs you, you should click out. So, yes, live out your family values and set those limits up but don’t assume your work then is done. You’re still going to need to deal with it because your child is going to need to deal with it.
Focus on real consequences instead of punishment: Part of learning to handle the internet and peers is messing up. Kids have to watch a video sometimes to know, oh rats, I should not have watched that. Very often that sinking feeling is a big enough consequence that you won’t need to create any of your own. The internet has a lot of yucky things on it and even the tightest of parental controls won’t keep all of it from slinking through. It is very likely that children will see naked ladies and creepy videos on purpose and on accident. Talk about this possibility before it happens. Talk about what your family values are around this. Talk about what you expect them to do. Let them know that if they see something online that they don’t like, you want to hear about it. When the time inevitably comes, listen with sympathy and then reiterate the rules. What can they do (if anything) to prevent the likelihood of that happening? What should they do if it happens anyway?
Explain to them about their vulnerability: Let them know that this is part of being 8 or 9 or 10. Explain that scary things won’t always feel this scary. Let them know that you are there to help them get through this developmental hurdle. Talk to them about fears that they used to have (that they’d go down the bathtub drain, for instance) and tell that this is like that. You can say, “I know Five Nights at Freddy’s seems really real but it’s no more real than the bathtub drain.” Promise them that they won’t always be this scared. Sometimes knowing that there is a way out (even if you can’t see it) can help. And along those lines…
Share your own middle-grade struggles: I’m not saying sit down and watch old school Poltergeist with them but talk to them about the thing that scared you when you were their age and tell them how you grew out of it. This can be a good exercise for you, too, to remember how scary unreal scary things can be; to maybe come up with solutions (what worked for you?); and to give your child a concrete demonstration that these fears can be conquered. (Ok, maybe you still wouldn’t keep a clown doll at the end of your bed but I bet you no longer quake in fear about that tree outside your window, right?)
Help them get to the bottom of things: You don’t need to bookmark Snopes.com on your kid’s tablet but you can teach them basic information about truth, lies and urban legends. Understanding the way stories get written, how they spread and why we do it can help diminish some of their power. How Stuff Works has a series of posts on urban legends and AmericanFolklore.net has resources for teachers and parents who might want to delve in further. For some kids, being able to get control in this way can help them feel more powerful and less scared.
Ask for help: Come to the Kids & Anxiety workshop next week to learn more about helping kids handle their worries appropriately. If you can’t be there, contact me and ask for my hand outs. If you think your child might benefit from counseling, let me know. If I’m not the right person to help him or her, likely I know a therapist who can. I’m also going to be running a group again this summer and you can learn more about that here.