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Left to their own devices

Too often today, children are left unsupervised to amuse themselves and their friends
I KNEW, of course, that it would happen. But it's still something of a shock. My 18-month-old son has discovered guns. He holds one of several plastic rifles to his shoulder, takes aim at his mother, yells "peeyouwn", then urgently requests me to "lie down, lie down". I lie down and let him walk all over me. Although I find his play disturbing, I think it's probably best on this occasion to go with the flow.

I marvel, though, at his ability independently to acquire a large arsenal. Neither of his parents has ever purchased a toy gun for him. The guns have just gravitated towards him, and he has diligently taken charge of them. Years ago, a friend of friend had twin sons, who she was determined would not be brought up in a manner which would "foster gender stereotypes". Her boys were given dolls but were not allowed to play with guns, to the eternal misery of their deluded parent. She eventually snapped when the children started biting their toast into pistol shapes and "peeyouwning" at each other across the breakfast table.

I was told that anecdote about 15 years ago, and it still makes me feel oddly smug. It's the comfort of feeling certain that it would be futile to resist these patterns of play. Or as certain as it's possible to be when dealing with parenting issues which seem so crucially to mirror the issues at large in the wider world.

I'm aware, though, that with a slight change of context such laissez- faire attitudes are much easier to condemn. A few months ago there was a shocking article in one of the middle-market tabloids, which reported on an 18-month-old boy who spent all of his time playing violent video games. He had started playing on his older brother's machine, and his parents had assumed he was simply mimicking his sibling when they'd first seen him manipulating the control panels. They quickly realised that he was actually playing after he began throwing tantrums when his brother tried to reclaim his game.

His parents, it was clear from the article, had approached the paper themselves. They considered their son to have an outstanding talent, and were hoping that they could drum up enough publicity to attract a sponsorship deal. I can't imagine how they must have felt when they opened the newspaper on the day the story was published and realised that they'd been stitched up. The article was wholeheartedly condemnatory, lingering on the fact that the boy was allowed to play for long periods over the day, and revealing that the words "kill, kill," had been among the first that he'd said.

Clearly these parents were foolish, misguided, indulgent, even ignorant, but that doesn't make them so terribly unusual. And while I remain certain that I'd draw the line way higher than these parents, now that my son is the same age as theirs, I find myself wondering exactly what that line denotes.

How different is aiming a toy gun, providing one's own sound effects and requesting mummy to lie down, to aiming with a console, repeating a manufactured sound effect, and watching a cartoon figure keeling over? We feel instinctively that it is very different, but the only real difference here is technology, and, with it, technology's suspected but unproven ability to interact more immediately than any other medium with our imaginations.

The paramount piece of evidence for our suspicions is the compulsive effect technology seems to have on us. While my son will abandon his guns and forget about them while he does something else he enjoys, this other child wanted always to be playing video games. And even perfectly normal adults, a recent survey showed, cursed the television for furnishing them with endless pap which they watch even though they feel guilty.

While this compulsion may be harmless, many people are utterly convinced that it is not. At any given time, half-cock links are being made between screen violence and actual violence, and now is no exception. Bill Clinton, fresh from a bit of map-reading in his war bunker, made a speech linking television, cinema, internet and video-game violence with the Columbine massacre, while Mr Justice Newman, passing sentence on the teenage killers of horticultural student Russell Crookes, explicitly mentioned particular videos as having "served to desensitise" them.

Hot on the heels of these latest high-profile links between screen violence and actual carnage, the National Viewers and Listeners Association weighed in with what it correctly called a "random survey", which consisted of counting incidents of violence on television and finding there were a lot. This they linked with a Teletext poll in which 92 per cent of a self- selecting sample said they thought there was too much violence on television. Presumably people so addicted to television that they spend their days ringing up Teletext have to conclude that, for them, there's too much of everything on television.

In response to this came a report, "Defining Violence", commissioned by the broadcasters from Leeds University. This report has been billed as contradicting the NVLA report, although it doesn't really. Citing such high-quality work as Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, it concludes that people enjoy violence when it is presented humorously and are moved by it when it is presented with serious intent. All this tells me is that people like good quality programming. It doesn't mean that they aren't irritated when they find themselves watching the average to awful violence that sloshes around the airwaves.

One thing the two reports do have in common is that they are utterly pointless skirmishes in a long-running battle which helps nobody. Broadcasters want to carry on screening violence because the majority of people want it. The NVLA wants them to stop because they are the minority of people who don't.

And what the powers that be at the NVLA don't seem to understand is that the more they bang on with their wild and misguided blanket condemnations, the more people will resist them. While the NVLA condemned the Channel 4 screening of Ken Loach's Ladybird, Ladybird, the "Defining Violence" survey found that viewers considered the violence justifiable within the context of the film.

I find it absurd that this film should be selected as a candidate for censorship, and note that the films which have the most important things to tell us about the human relationship with violence - David Cronenberg's adaptation of JG Ballard's Crash being a perfect example - are the ones which cause the most outrage.

Although adults deprived of violent telly would be hard-pressed to manufacture their entertainment from toast, they'd certainly be able to get violent entertainment elsewhere. The trouble is that it's increasingly the same for children. My boy got his guns from other children, the computer- game-playing infant got his machine from his older brother, and a six- year-old recently told me she'd seen Scream - one of the films watched by the boys who killed Russell Crookes-- while being supervised by her teenage cousin.

The links between murderous youngsters and screen violence are made continually and with no conclusion, but something more obvious is commented upon much less - that these murderous children never seem to carry out their atrocities alone. While we understand the importance of peer-groups in the development of children, we tend to see it as a good thing when they are spending lots of time with other children, fostering what was called in a recent survey "a bedroom culture".

Children are left too often unsupervised to amuse themselves and other children. Technology beyond their reason falls too easily into their hands. The huge change in the anatomy of childhood that we have seen develop over the past 40 years is the link we ought to be trying to pin down when we consider children and violence. Among adults, screen violence is just a matter of taste.