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Opinion: The ‘senior assassin’ game is all good fun — until it isn’t

Opinion by Kara Alaimo

(CNN) — One morning this week, I opened the blinds in my bedroom and saw a young person walking up my driveway with what appeared to be a grey gun. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to text a picture to neighbors who quickly told me what was going on: kids in my town were playing a game called “senior assassin” in which they hunt one another down with water guns. It’s happening all over the country — and we can’t expect all of these episodes to end peacefully.

According to USA Today, the game is usually played off school grounds, with some kids using the game to (of course) make content for TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. Unsurprisingly, the game has resulted in many calls to 911, car crashesa school evacuation and dangerous confrontations with actual gun owners.

It’s unsurprising that a class of kids who have been unusually isolated from their friends are trying to find ways to bond with one another and have fun as their school year winds down. But communities need to offer kids safer outlets for meeting these needs — and parents, schools, lawmakers and tech companies need to take action to protect kids from this potentially deadly game.

Of course, it’s easy to see why kids are playing “senior assassin”: they’re trying to connect with one another. Their generation spends less time with friends and more on social media. In 1999, the average 12th grader went on 2.78 social outings per week. By 2020, that number dropped to 1.89, according to the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future survey.

So it makes sense that this game really took off in the early 2010s, just as kids started spending more time on their phones and creating content on social media. On top of that, most of today’s seniors spent a significant portion of their high school years isolated from peers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But this is an extraordinarily dangerous way for them to try to meet this desire. As police have warned, someone who thinks they’re in danger from an actual gun might meet a kid playing this game with deadly violence. More than 40% of American adults have a gun in their household, and 72% of gun owners say a major reason is for protection, according to the Pew Research Center.  Just last year, 20-year-old Kaylin Gillis was fatally shot in upstate New York by a homeowner after she and three other friends accidentally turned into his driveway, mistaking it for a friend’s house.

Sadly, mistakes involving kids and guns are common in the US. In 2020 and 2021, firearms were the leading cause of death of children ages 1-17, killing more kids than any illness or other type of injury, according to KFF.

Clearly, this game is a tragedy just waiting to happen. It’s also unfair to community members who might be frightened by it. And it risks overtaxing local police who shouldn’t be inundated with calls about kids running around communities with what can be easily mistaken for real weapons.

Instead, parents, students, schools, libraries and community centers should organize other opportunities for kids to connect with and bid farewell to one another. The possibilities are endless: I envision dance parties, movie marathons, trivia nights, amateur/open mic nights and field days or other athletic competitions.

Parents shouldn’t let their kids play “senior assassin.” In some cases, schools could consider letting it be played on school premises (inside the gym or outside on school property with signs prominently telling passersby what’s going on) as a deterrent to having it played in public (or even on private property like mine) where it can lead to misunderstandings.

More broadly, tech companies can announce they’re shadow banning content that shows people shooting at one another, which would discourage this trend, as well as other, more violent imagery. (As I’ve warned before, people who witness acts of violence in media are more likely to commit acts of physical violence against others).

And, of course, lawmakers need to pass legislation to stop allowing toymakers to make play guns that look like real ones. If the young person on my property had been holding a bright orange water gun instead of a grey one, it would have been a clear signal to me that my family was not in danger.

Young people in our society understandably want and indeed need to connect. It’s on parents, schools and communities to give them healthy ways to do so — but not let them play public games that have the potential to turn fatal.

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