School Shootings, Gaming and Online Extremism: What Parents Need to Know
A few days after the San Diego synagogue shooting, a yoga teacher in my community who is also a somatic psychologist posted a question on her Facebook page asking other parents of middle school kids if anyone had succeeded in NOT getting a mobile phone for their child, and sharing her concern about video games as well. Her question started quite a conversation online. After the STEM school shooting in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, I decided to write about my conversation with her on Facebook, in order to share with more parents what I believe is critical information to help them orient and respond adaptively to the ongoing shooting spree crisis.
On the Facebook thread, I urged my friend to hold the line with her son in middle school over his demand for a cell phone; with 5G coming, the risk of EMF radiation from cell phones will only worsen for children and teens, I cautioned. And I urged her even more to hold the line on violent multiplayer video gaming, which 5G will enable for mobile.
Why am I writing this? I’m a somatic-emotional therapist, holistic health educator, former university professor and cultural theorist. I blog as The Healist. In 2009, I published an article in the international journal Semiotica on the VA Tech shooting, and am currently writing a book entitled Going Off the Deep End: A Body Psychology Approach to Understanding and Preventing School Shootings. I’ve been tracking the shooting spree crisis for a decade now, and want to share some key insights.
The problem is not just shooter games that invite players to shoot humans and see it as a game, and thus become over time desensitized to violence. That’s just one problem, though reason enough for any parent to be concerned. But there’s another problem: online games are haunted by a network of hate mongering, alt right, white supremacist trolls. This online extremist discourse attracts at-risk people with a propensity towards violence, and inundates them, inculcates them and imprints their nervous system with virtual bullying. For everyone involved, online bullying and hate-mongering may be virtual, but the emotions, thought forms and somatic behaviors it evokes are real. For young players with a history of trauma, or with mental health challenges, or neurological challenges, or even hormonal challenges like Alec McKinney, the second STEM school shooter, who was struggling with transgender identity issues and bullying, the risks are greater.
For cultural theorists out there reading this, I’m referring to the fact that in nature, there is no separation between the biological and informational stratum. In other words, natural chains of encoding do not respect the social language games we play about how safe it is to have 150 million Americans playing video games, 2.3 billion on the planet, most of which teach people to be in the subject position of an active shooter. It’s a game we play when we allow ourselves to think doing so is safe. What we know about developmental psychology and somatic psychology should tell us we are playing with fire.
Here’s what I think every parent of middle and high school students should know about the connection between violent video games and spree shooters, including school shooters, so they can make the best decision about appropriate use for their children.
The PewDiePie connection
Both the Churchchrist shooter in New Zealand, Brenton Tarrant, and the California Synagogue shooter, John Earnest, included the popular meme #subscribetoPewDiePie in their racist, violent hate-filled “manifestos” posted on 8chan’s user generated message boards. Today, I read in the news that one of the STEM school shooters, Devon Erickson, followed PewDiePie on Facebook.
It’s important for parents to know what the PewDiePie (rhymes with cutiepie) meme is, and what it has come to represent. Because if your child plays video games, or wants to learn how to play video games, the odds are high he will eventually find his way to PewDiePie’s YouTube videos and the PewDiePie hashtag. Why is that? Because PewDiePie has over 95 million subscribers. And PewDiePie’s videos have been viewed over 21 billion times. That’s not a typo. Over 21 billion views according to Trackalytics as of May 7, 2019. The day of the STEM school shooting. While the media may want to blame PewDiePie for the social violence happening off line, it’s more complicated than that.
PewDiePie in real life is Felix Kjellberg, a 29 year-old Swedish video gamer and YouTuber best known for his Let’s Play commentaries about popular video games. In 2016, he was YouTube’s top earner, pulling in $15 million. His avatar is offensive, in-your-face, snide and often amoral. And some of his videos were anti-Semitic enough that he was dropped by Disney’s Maker Studios in 2017, causing YouTube’s Preferred ad platform to sever commercial ties. PewDiePie's response was characteristically narcissistic, calling out “old school media” for their attempt to “decrease my influence and my economic worth.” The notoriety hasn’t hurt his YouTube ratings. So much so I think it’s reasonable to wonder if he’s getting some help for those gargantuan viewing stats from the infamous St. Petersburg trolling farm and click farm, made visible in the Mueller Report, that played Trump so well during the 2016 election. We need to ask, is PewDiePie being played? And by whom? And to what purpose?
8chan and the Dark Web
What is PewDiePie’s connection to 8chan? 8chan is a user-generated message board on the Dark Web overrun not only with people posting child pornography and stolen credit card information, but also with internet trolls that attack and harass people by posting personal information online and spewing alt-right, white supremacist and misogynist discourse designed to sow social and political discord in both online and on-the-ground communities.
Because of PewDiePie’s vast online reach, trolls surround him and his social media hashtags like fleas on a dog. By parasitically trolling PewDiePie's followers and viewers, trolls have access to the minds and psyches of hundreds of millions of vulnerable, impressionable teens and young adults—some of whom, like the Churchchrist and San Diego synagogue shooters, became “radicalized” into fascist ideology that would later leave their families, neighbors and friends shocked and mystified at their sudden murderous, crazy behavior.
8chan’s troll-infested webnest spun off from the popular 4chan gaming message board platform over Gamergate—an orchestrated attack on women in the gaming community who were pushing back on misogynist and violent discourse on 4chan. Troll attacks were violent and relentless, threatening outspoken women game developers like Brianna Wu with murder and rape, including doxxing her address to make those threats real on the ground. The FBI was called, but Wu said they didn’t take the threats seriously, and they haven't stopped. When 4chan admin tried to set boundaries early in the GamerGate troll war, 8chan took off as the alt-right space on the Dark Web for unbridled hate speech masquerading as free speech. To this day, women are targeted, as well as progressive, liberal culture in general. 8chan trolls like to disrupt ethnic, racial and gender diversity—a cultural core value of democracy.
How do You Know if a Video Game is Safe for your Child?
Let’s look at the popular multiplayer game Fortnite as an example, because the yoga teacher in my community who shared her concern on Facebook shared that her son sometimes went into a rage when she tried to discipline his time on Fortnite.
I was honest. I shared on her FB thread that the story of her son’s rage response triggered a memory of a detail from the Parkland shooting. Police records showed the Parkland shooter’s mother had called 911 on her son when he attacked her for trying to take away his Xbox. Police came, but she did not file charges. I can imagine it’s hard to file charges against your own son. But it was a missed opportunity to ask for help. But let’s say she did ask for help. Would her son have gotten more than the prescription psychotropic meds he’d already been prescribed? Psychotropic drugs only increase the risk of violence, judging by the number of active shooters who are on them. Or who were on them and had adverse reactions prior to going off the deep end, like the Sandy Hook shooter. The problem is that so many of these drugs list suicidal thoughts as serious side-effects, although to see that you have to look all the way at the bottom of the tiny fine print in the patient information guide that no one reads. Some even list homicide.
I’m going to risk looking like I’m getting on a soapbox here, but why did the FDA ever approve drugs with risks like that for children and teens? I’m sorry, but we need a house cleaning over at the FDA. We need women in there. Mothers. Not pharma execs. If it’s not good for children, then we’re poisoning ourselves. We’re making ourselves sick, and we need to stop drinking from the same watering trough over and over hoping we’ll somehow get better.
If your son rages when you try to limit him playing a video game, that's a red flag that he’s becoming addicted. On the gaming side of the equation, there are multiple problems. It's not just the violence that desensitizes all of us, it’s not just the somatic training to shoot that’s developmentally, emotionally and morally inappropriate for teens or pre-teens, and it’s not just that the games are traumatizing in themselves, because adrenaline addicted players are constantly and repetitively shooting human targets under stress. It's also that the game is programmed with somatic-emotional feedback loops designed to be addictive. Being able to talk to your child or teen about the games is a good sign. Not being able to talk is a warning sign.
In one emotionally honest video interview, Dylan Klebold’s mother (her son, one of the Columbine shooters, was addicted to the game Doom) describes the moment she realized she had lost her son. It was on Mother’s Day, which he had forgotten, and out of desperation she pushed her son against the refrigerator in the kitchen, pressing him to talk to her, because she knew he had shut her out. Being painfully quiet, keeping quiet about delusional, violent thoughts and plans, even selective mutism, withdrawal and withholding information, are all red flags of someone going off the deep end. Later that day, he came back with a small plant as a Mother’s Day gift, but it was the last time she had emotional connection with him. She knew before he was gone that she had lost him.
Personally, I chose not to go into 8chan while researching this blog post. As a cultural semiotician trained in semantics and somatics, I can tell you I don’t want to go into that dark space. Because I don’t want that shitfest in my head. I have enough to think about. I have to finish this book for one. And tell my friend, the yoga teacher and somatic psychologist who is a mindfully concerned mom, how afraid I am for her son to play Fortnite. Is it safe? Honestly I don’t think so. Not psychologically, not developmentally, not emotionally, not morally, not politically. Don’t let him go in there. Say don’t go there. And set about educating him before he grows up as to why he wants to walk in the Light instead. The Light is more powerful than the dark. As it is in Nature. So it is within.
Why Parents Should Be Concerned about Children and Teens Playing Fortnite
The game maker says Fortnite is appropriate for players 13 and older. But Fortnite is one popular multiplayer online game I would not recommend for middle school children, high school teens or even college students. Not only because the killing in the game is killing humans and not monsters, but also because, like many of these games, the online chat platform allows random strangers to talk to your child. Some of these strangers are other gamers, but a shocking number are trolls looking for somebody to harass, bully, disorient and confuse. If that’s not enough to make a parent concerned, recall the Churchchrist shooter in New Zealand named Fortnite in his 8chan manifesto as one of the video games he played.
Take a look at these online resources for parents about Fortnite. If your child is younger than 13 and playing Fortnite, be very concerned.
Let’s look at what’s going on outside of the game itself. If your child is playing Fortnite and makes a comment on a message board, or asks a question, any number of trolls can respond. Remember, trolls are like fleas on dogs. According to one gamer who shared his experience online, troll attacks are not for the faint of heart. After he got on a Russian server and had the audacity to type “shhhhh” to some trolls talking trash on a message board, he was attacked not just by a few trolls, but more like 50 trolls hurling outrageous, inflammatory insults. Worse yet, the gamer reported his account was hacked. Suddenly Russian rubles were moved in and out of his account without his knowledge or permission, until he was flagged by the gaming platform for suspicious transactions. In 2019, Fortnite admitted it had a security breach allowing trolls to mine personal account info. I hope I’m not the only one who see a big red flag here—Russian trolls mining for personal data? Where have we seen that before? Surely, we can agree it’s dangerous for Russian trolls to have access to the financial accounts, minds and nervous systems of so many young Americans.
The truth is, children or teens in online gaming groups and chats could be exposed to inflammatory trolling that is hateful, violent, manipulative, disorienting, racist, misogynist or anti-Semitic. Stuff they would likely never hear at home or in a classroom. In 2018, The Hate Report counted 173 groups that glorifiy school shooters on Steam’s gaming platform. The recent attempt by a suspicious Russian gaming company to launch a game called Active Shooter onto Steam’s popular platform, in which players take on the role of an active shooter in a high school, should make the hair stand up on every parent’s head. Luckily, public outcry, led by Parkland student and parent activists, convinced Steam to kill the game and banish the Russian game developer from the popular platform for being a troll.
The point is, Fortnight and its chatrooms are not a place for the young and inexperienced. Or the traumatized or bullied. Or anyone struggling neurologically. Or anyone on psychotropic meds having suicidal thoughts. Certainly not anyone on the verge of going off the deep end.
Finally, there’s one more reason you might not want to allow your child to play Fortnite, even though millions of pre-teens and teens are. Fortnight is one of many games being used for military recruitment. If your child is not suited to be a drone pilot, suggest they steer clear. And if they are suited, refer them to media coverage of traumatized drone pilots with PTSD who are coming forward as whistleblowers. Sitting strapped in a chair for hours on end, day after day, bunkered somewhere in the desert outside Las Vegas far from the light of day, shooting at numbers flashing by on a computer screen, and then seeing a flyover of the carnage you’ve created down on the ground after the fact, often affecting innocent people, is not what it’s cracked up to be in video games. Many believe military recruitment before age 18 is an ethical breach. I do. Caution is advised.
Is there a solution?
It’s so important that parents keep talking and sharing. There’s so much to be done, and the prevention we need will have to come from parents and teachers, not first responders. Because then it’s already too late.
I think it’s fair to say that me, my yoga teacher friend, and about 100 other women talking on Facebook the other day were on the Light Web. The LA yoga community is like a lotus flower of mostly women, and lots of those women are mothering. It is many generations old with deep roots and wide branches. And there is definitely a palpable light shining and emanating from the core of it. I happen to know one young yogi from the LA yoga community who is over at Riot Games this week battling Gamergate harassment with an organized walkout to protect women in the industry who are speaking out against the violence and misogyny in game culture. If we want to prevent another shooting spree, if we want to say #neveragain and mean it, we might want to beam some energy over there where she is right now. We might want to shine the light of consciousness on what’s going on and speak up. Because women developers, designers and writers are going to help us get out of this catastrophic mess by changing the playing field and creating healthier, safer, more enlightened and less misogynistic games. Parents need to stand behind women in the gaming industry against harassment.
And educators need to wake up. I think schools are up to bat now, honestly. Students are starting to tackle active shooters in classrooms, knowing they may be shot and die doing it, but they’re adapting to the reality that there is no place to hide. Heroes are emerging willing to confront active shooters face-to-face. Educators need to match that bravery. Look the problem in the face. Face your fear. Yes, schools need more security guards, sure. But schools need far more counselors and holistic health coaches, including nutritionists, than security guards. And they need it now. Policy makers take note. The No Child Left Behind program with its emphasis on testing failed, primarily because it was launched in the middle of an autism, diabetes and mental illness epidemic to which it offered zero remedy. If legislators want to help protect children and teens at school, they need to fund more school counselors, not allocate funds to arm teachers to shoot their own students. That’s more insanity. And schools need to do a better job keeping Big Pharma out of the nervous systems and brains of American school children. Educators need to speak truth to power, and help parents hold the line. They also need to take responsibility for writing Parent Advisories on age-appropriate video gaming, and for parent education about risks. The same goes for pharmacological drugs prescribed for children and teens.
Schools need so much more than reasonable gun control. While universal background checks is a no brainer, banning guns is a Constitutional dead end in the U.S., not to mention political suicide for any candidate in the South, as Stacey Abrams learned the hard way. And pragmatically, so many different handguns and rifles are used by active shooters, you’d be chasing bans for decades and getting nowhere. My point is, if anyone thinks gun control alone is going to solve our problem, they have their head in the sand. Prevention needs to happen long before someone has the desire to indiscriminately kill innocent people, has used their cognitive skills to quietly plan how, has trained somatically to point and pull the trigger, and now is searching for a gun and ammo to do it in real time. That’s late in the game to hope for dramatically better outcomes.
For educators, the writing is on the screen. Teach electronic literacy as seriously as we teach print literacy, and do a better job protecting students' neurobiological health. That doesn’t mean leave students sitting all day staring at a computer screen, drinking energy drinks in an Adderall trance with effects similar to meth. It means returning to the care ethics of education that go back to the very beginnings of public education and the birth of democracy. Of course it makes sense to integrate education and health. It’s called public health education. And we need it now more than ever.
Meanwhile, community by community, we need to keep talking. Breathing. Being conscious. Asking questions. Reading comments. Sharing stories. And then digesting, feeling, and sensing. Getting down to what happened, and the feeling of what happened. Touching it. Looking it in the face. Talking about it. And thinking about it critically. Feeling it emotionally—the fear, the anger, the sorrow. Reflecting, taking time to note bodymindsets of denial, avoidance and deliberate ignorance. Even fatalism. We can bring our young into the light. We have to.