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Poll: Parents fear their kids playing Grand Theft Auto more than watching porn, drinking beer*

August 11, 2008 |  5:35 pm
Grand Theft Auto IV

Which is the worst thing for your 17-year-old to do? Drink beer? Smoke pot? Watch porn? Or play Grand Theft Auto?

While marijuana took the No. 1 spot of worst offenders, GTA finished second in an online poll of 1,650 people by What They Play, a site that reviews games from the parents' perspective. Pot-smoking was listed by 50% of the respondents as the thing that would most concern them if their 17-year-old did it during a sleepover at a friend's house. Next were GTA with 19%, watching porn with 17% and drinking beer with 14%.

It's not a scientific survey, but it does give a provocative insight into Americans' attitudes about video games.

Cheryl K. Olson, co-founder of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media and coauthor of the book "Grand Theft Childhood," thinks parents see games as the devil they don't know and therefore dread it more than porn or alcohol.

"Although these findings seem surprising at first, they hint at fears parents have about video games," Olson said. "To some parents, video games are full of unknowable dangers. Of course, parents don't want their children drinking alcohol, but that's a more familiar risk."

The survey is skewed by the particular demographic of visitors to What They Play, which has about half a million unique visitors a month. About 86% of those identify themselves as parents looking for ...

... information on which games to buy for their kids, said Tom R. Byron, vice president of marketing for What They Like, the San Francisco company that runs What They Play. The rest are grandparents, aunts or uncles. Most are in their mid-30s to mid-40s.

The site conducts polls to find out what parents are thinking so its editorial staff can write content to address their concerns, Byron said. In April, several weeks before the launch of Grand Theft Auto IV, the site put up a poll asking what parents would find most offensive in a game: a severed human head, a man and a woman having sex, multiple uses of the "F" word or two men kissing. The No. 1 answer was  sex, which accounted for 37% of the 1,266 votes casted. Men kissing came in second with 27%, followed by the severed head at 25% and the "F" word with 9%.

What They Like used the results to write one of their most popular articles, "Grand Theft Auto IV: 11 Things Parents Should Know." The polls are also meant to generate discussion -- are video games as bad for children as alcohol? If so, what is it about games that's so objectionable?

"We have a motto here," Byron said. "It's 'Don't get mad. Get educated.'"

What do you think?

-- Alex Pham

Image courtesy of Associated Press

* An earlier version of this post misstated in the headline that parents were more concerned about kids playing GTA than they were about them smoking pot.