Modern Times: Hitting Home

For some kids, online gaming and chat rooms ease alienation. Here's why their web-based passions still feel to our generation like a deep, dark threat

The boy was blond and beautiful and loved, but there was a problem. The year between 14 and 15 had struck change in him. Obsessions shifted from hockey and bicycles to a video game, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. His parents – his good, good parents – tried to set limits, but the gaming was unceasing. His mother walked in on him more than once in the middle of the night when he was playing online, talking with other players through an earpiece, pretending to be a Marine or a member of the British SAS, pretending to shoot, pretending to be an adult.

It is this image of a mother and son in the dark that is unshakable, familiar to any parent who has held a sick child through to daybreak. She found him in a different glow, an ominous shadow world that eventually pulled him away from his family for good – or so it seemed.

Finally, his worried parents reached a breaking point and took away his video game; at Thanksgiving, the boy ran away. A few wrenching weeks later, hunters found 15-year-old Brandon Crisp’s body in tall grass not far from Lake Simcoe in southern Ontario.

At the time of the disappearance, Crisp’s father, Steve, told the press: “When I took his Xbox away, I took away his identity.” What had looked like a loner’s descent into isolation was actually a boy engaged with a community, but it was an online one, a kind of comfort unfamiliar to his parents. Said his father: “These are the things I didn’t realize.”

Children go missing, and children die, and each tragedy is unique; the only commonality is the inexplicability, the world-shrouding sorrow of such a loss. But the Brandon Crisp case tugged at a particular kind of cultural anxiety, and it captured the imagination of the public: over the three weeks he was missing, hundreds searched and 22,000 people signed on to Facebook to find him; Microsoft donated $50,000 to a reward fund and agreed to examine his Xbox account for signs of foul play. Every parent tried to pray away the worst: an online predator, a late-night meeting. We read the story and glanced at our own children, placid at the computer, and wondered: What are we doing wrong?

A 2007 American study by Harris Interactive found that 94 percent of the boys surveyed play video games at least once a month, and the average 13- to 18-year-old plays 14 hours a week. For most of these kids, a game is just a game, but 8.5 percent of youth gamers, ages 8 to 18, can be classified as pathological or clinically “addicted.”

Perhaps Brandon Crisp fell into that category, but research about the effects of gaming on most kids is ambiguous at best. One recent study from Iowa State University tested youth in Japan and the U.S. and found that after a few months of playing video games, they had increased levels of aggression. Of course, kids were asked to “self-report” their aggressive behaviour, a dubious concept for most people-pleasing teens. One of many critics of the study, Christopher Ferguson of Texas A&M International University, objected to its results because researchers failed to assess the level of family violence the kids were exposed to. “I’ve found that controlling for family-violence exposure pretty much wipes out any relationship between violent games and aggression,” he said. In other words, it’s not the game, it’s the kid playing it, and a predisposition to violence can start in his home, his hormones, his circumstances.

In fact, recent research has discovered a surprisingly positive take on gaming: The Pew Internet & American Life Project found that the three most popular types of games played by kids today are not violent but involve racing, puzzles and sports. According to Pew, 79 percent of kids who play are playing online or with someone else in the room, and in doing so, they’re engaged in peer-based learning, problem solving and achieving goals together.

And yet there is something intuitively disturbing about watching a kid sit in front of a computer screen for hours on end. When we think about youth, we imagine activity and movement, a fantasy of parks to be crossed and rivers to be swum. And teens, above all, should be socializing in wild, rowdy crews, be it sock hop or hip hop.

So what to do with that kid at the computer – alone? Maybe we need to recast the meaning of that image and challenge the immediate queasiness (and our own fear of parental failure) it brings. I know nothing about the inner life of Brandon Crisp, but I do know that adolescence can be lonely and difficult, a retreat inward. If a kid is susceptible in that way, living a little online may actually provide some solace. Expressing herself in a chat room or on Facebook is a way of breaking alienation.

It’s hard for those of us who are over 30 and grew up taking comfort in books and movie theatres to understand the magnitude of this shift. Our confusion over kids’ multi-tasking, Twittering and texting turns all of us into immigrant parents, watching as our offspring function fully in a society that we will always look at from the outside. Born to it, our kids are citizens of technology in ways we can’t be, but here’s the thing: They’re still kids. They deserve to be parented with love and limits, and the best advice on this issue is universal: Keep the computer out of your child’s bedroom. Arm him against predators online as you would off-line. Check the ratings on the games. Do your best. Don’t panic.

Every generation is mourned as the one that will screw things up forever, and often it’s the cocktail of youth and technology that’s to blame: The corruption of kids in the early 20th century was blamed on penny arcades; in the ’70s, on television. But what we fear isn’t really the games; it’s the kids, those people who were our babies and are now foreigners, strangers in our midst. As Hesiod wrote in the eighth century BC: “I can see no hope for the future of our people . . . for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words.”

But what youth isn’t frivolous and reckless? A sporty friend said to me recently, asking about my teen years: “What did you play?” To which I answered: “The Smiths. Fetal position.” I can laugh about it now only because I survived that hellish time, hypersensitive and perpetually wounded for no really good reason. Kids in the chrysalis of adulthood will always want to slip off into their own worlds, virtual or otherwise. A few, for no really good reason, won’t make it out.

In the end, the autopsy said that Brandon Crisp died from a fall. The police speculated that he climbed a tree, that most innocent of childhood pursuits. Perhaps he was trying to orient himself and plan a return home.