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Dear Dr. Mark

I showed my dad a video of an adorable three-year-old girl playing Skyrim which was posted on YouTube (and also featured in an article here on the Escapist). Here’s a link to the video.

Like many that commented, I thought the video was very cute, but my dad did not. He was adamant that the girl shouldn’t have been shown such violent images because of her age. He said that, because three-year-olds can’t differentiate between fantasy and reality, exposure to such imagery could actually harm her development in the long run.

I know you’ve addressed this topic in relation to an older child in an earlier column. Do you think exposing violent images to a child younger than five is truly dangerous?

My earlier column dealt with a young woman’s questions about gaming with her six year-old niece. Interested readers can review it here. The games in question were, in my view, mostly age appropriate, certainly nothing with the M rating of Skyrim.

I think this video raises a very different set of issues. How are very young children affected by violent imagery in mature videogames, and could this exposure be somehow harmful to them? Is some material inappropriate for children of a tender age and should we try to shield them from it, however difficult this may prove to be?

Clearly, our government and medical authorities believe this to be the case. That’s why there are ratings for videogames, TV shows, and movies. Is this puritanical censorship from a cumbersome, meddling state, or is there some method to their madness?

Your father suggests that three year-olds don’t necessarily distinguish reality from fantasy. I’ve found this to be true in my work with small children, there is also some evidence for it in the clip. How many of you yell at the characters on the screen while you play? OK, some of you may still do this, but I’m guessing it’s less about interacting with a character you think is real, and more about venting frustration or joy. With this very cute little girl, it’s hard to tell how seriously she believes in the reality of what she is seeing while yelling at the screen, and later, as she experiences the violence which ensues.

Researchers tell us that the brain develops gradually for human beings, we are born relatively helpless compared to other animals, but make great strides in cognitive development during what are called “the formative years.” During this period, our brains are soaking up experiences, and maturing according to a biological plan.

As we become more mature, we are better able to process certain experiences, which means we can understand them more clearly and place them in some kind of context. It’s hard to say exactly when this will happen for any given individual, but I think we are on reasonably safe ground to assume the process is not complete at age three. This means that certain upsetting content is likely inappropriate for little ones, including graphically violent and graphically sexual material. Even though many small children bring their own brand of aggression and violence into play, as a way of learning to master such impulses, they probably don’t need our help in the form of even more explicit content.

When you think about it, it’s just common sense to protect them from experiences they will likely find upsetting and confusing, and most parents do this instinctively.

Even if one accepts this rationale for regulating the exposure of young children to potentially upsetting material, how bad is the risk to them if they are exposed–will they all be horribly traumatized?

No parent is perfect and many little children are exposed to things we’d rather spare them. My experience is that many are quite resilient and able to move quickly beyond these episodes, while parental guilt and apprehension lingers. Although we can’t be sure that an episode of exposure will be traumatic for a particular child, it does seem possible that chronic and unfiltered experiences at very tender ages could do damage. While most children can overcome occasional lapses in parental protection, chronic failure can put them at risk.

Getting back to the video itself, I personally found the little girl’s reactions to be entirely appropriate for a child of three. She had a rather silly and slightly angry interaction with the NPC, and she seemed confused, scared and maybe horrified at the violence, some of which she initiated, while the rest apparently came down upon her character. Could she have learned an important lesson from all this (“people don’t want to be sword”) and just what is that lesson? If you don’t listen and attack authorities, bad things will happen to you? Scary, terrifying things that you don’t understand happen in videogames? It doesn’t feel too good to “be sword” (which I interpret to mean being attacked with a sword)?

Any of this and more could be going on. Maybe she is learning to find violence fascinating and intriguing. Maybe she’ll be terrified for a week and have nightmares about her experience. Maybe this is going on in her house all the time (it is apparently a family of gamers) and she’ll come to see this is a way of having fun.

In a way, the clip is like a projective test in psychology: that is, we can see whatever we want to see in it. I see a little girl who probably got a little too deep into gaming before she was ready, you see a terrible trauma in the making. Or maybe you see a kid learning how to game. Her parents may well help her process this and other experiences and she may not be harmed or traumatized.

That doesn’t change my view that the prevailing wisdom about protecting very young children from these kinds of experiences is probably worth heeding. It’s hard to predict which kids are more vulnerable to anxiety issues and other stress reactions, and in my work, we see plenty of this nowadays. It’s probably better to provide a safe and more sanitized magical world for a child as long as we can. Childhood ends all too soon anyway.

Dr. Mark Kline does not talk aloud to video game characters while playing. Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to askdrmark@escapistmag.com. Your identity will remain confidential.

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