The Parents guide to safe online gaming

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One of the fantastic features of having access to a Gaming PC is the opportunity for your children to connect and socialise with their friends or like-minded individuals across the world. The social aspect of online gaming allows your child to share experiences and interact with their friends from the safety of their own house allowing you to keep them firmly within your sight.

However, I’m sure you’ve heard the horror stories from friends or within the media about the darker side of online gaming. Children can be opened up to danger and preyed upon by those with malicious intentions. I cannot tell you that these people do not exist, but being aware of what these threats are will allow you to take sensible are steps to protect your children and keep them as safe as possible.

What are the dangers?

1. Exposure to unsafe content

You may not be comfortable with your child playing violent video games or games which you feel are too old for them. Unfortunately, your job may be made harder as many of your child’s friends may be playing Call of Duty or Fortnite at an early age so your child thinks they are missing out. Fortnite is a game that creates a lot of debate around a suitable age limit. While Fortnite is a cartoon game, it does have weapons and an element of violence. Common sense media, a website where parents can leave their views on games to help other parents make up their mind on the suitability of a game, suggests the age rating should be 13+. Some parents suggest they believe an age rating of 7/8+. You’ll need to do your own research and determine what you are comfortable with although many parents are asking the same question if Google is anything to go by!

2. Bullying and Harassment

You’ve done your research and allowed your child to play the game. They get together with their friends and play together, possibly against other teams (or squads!) of individuals online. Your child and their friends work together using teamwork, communicate to help the team succeed while improving their skills in the process. Online gaming can be a very positive experience.

That’s when everything is going well! You may find that there are different skill levels within the group and perhaps one individual is unable to perform to the standard of another child. Maybe their actions lead to the group losing the game. In a group situation like that it’s very easy for that child to be put down by one or more of the group infront of their friends. In a situation like this when perhaps the child is playing a team sport like football or rugby there would be a coach to encourage and ensure that there is harmony within the group. Online gaming isn’t like that, typically there are no adults present so the children will be sorting out any squabbles themselves. It’s very easy for one child to become upset, perhaps this goes on for a period of time so it could be considered bullying. You hope the online gaming experience is a good one but it’s very difficult for an adult to know or police what is going on.

On the other hand, your child may be able to communicate with other individuals. It’s common that the voice communications are kept within a group for the game but after the game, they are opened up so different groups can speak to one another. You’ll find exchanges between different groups can become unpleasant and a fly on the wall may hear some horrible things being said. This is referred to as “trash talk” and even as an adult when I play online games the things other people can say make me feel uncomfortable. I certainly wouldn’t want my child to be involved or have to hear such a thing. Again I feel it’s down to lack of accountability and policing by a suitable adult. Many of these games have adult ratings so game publishers can point to the age and shrug their shoulders. It’s possible to report the vile abuse but realistically I wouldn’t expect much to be done about it so it’s best to take steps yourself to shield your child away from the situation.

3. Divulging personal information

A child does not have the maturity to understand their actions their innocent mistakes may make online. Someone who has malicious intent may try and befriend the child to extract personal information from them. One example of this is account theft. Let’s say your child has invested serious time in playing a game online. Perhaps they have been successful in that game resulting in them achieving desirable or rare items. Other players may decide they don’t want to invest the time in achieving those items and therefore may try to steal those items themselves. Your child may be tricked into divulging some personal information that they don’t think is significant but could help those individuals gain access to the account. This could be your son or daughter sharing account details or perhaps the thief may try and use phishing tactics to trick your child into entering their account details on a website that looks like the original but isn’t. This will allow them to gain access to your child’s account, possibly strip it of their possessions or use it as their own. It’s important that you are aware that this happens and protect your child by education and good practice to prevent it from happening. It’s often possible to report the theft to the game publisher but it’s not always easy or guaranteed your child will have their game returned to them. Those hours of playing the game may be wasted and your child will no doubt be upset. This can be prevented.

4. Addiction

Gaming addiction is serious and like any addiction, it can be difficult to break free of it. When children play the game they are sucked into a world where time, as well as skill, determines their progress. Games include clever systems around XP (experience points) to keep players coming back and unlocking new content as they progress through the game. Like any hobby, we enjoy we want to do our best and spend as much time as possible doing it. Online gaming can be very accessible as it’s within the house so is available 24/7. Other hobbies typically have a start/finish time at set intervals so there are boundaries but the timelines can easily start to blur.

I’ve experienced this myself and my 8 year old son agreed with me that once we spoke about addiction that he related to this while playing FIFA. He played a mode called ultimate team where you create a team and can improve it by gaining new players before playing against other individuals online. He started to play too much, it was difficult to get him stop playing the game and his personality changed. He would become grumpy and agitated during the game when things weren’t going his way and he wasn’t the happy and kind boy that we knew. We solved this by limiting his time and setting boundaries which improved the situation too.

Online gaming is also sedimentary, you won’t be burning too many calories while you play. If the balance between gaming and exercise is not kept in check then your child may become overweight and, due to the enjoyment and addiction of gaming, may have no interest in pushing themselves through exercise when the gaming is so easy and requires minimal effort.

5. Gambling

The revenue of many games are boosted by supplementary purchases made from within the game which is referred to as “loot boxes”. In their simplest form, loot boxes are like a lottery. Within the chests/packs/however they are packaged so there will be a chance to receive a rare item such as a skin (a design for a weapon), a better character to use in the game, or perhaps more in-game currency. The higher-end prizes may considerably improve your chance to progress throughout the game or increase your status by equipping some form of cosmetic item visible to other players. The idea is that you buy one of these loot boxes hoping to obtain one of these items. The odds of doing so aren’t published but I expect the chance of hitting the jackpot is minimal. Some games have even introduced spin to win fruit machine-esque games within the main game!

As loot boxes are relatively new they are not officially classed as gambling, there have been calls for the UK government to ban them like other countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Japan and China. There is no doubt that these loot boxes are very tempting for children and could well be causing a rise in child gambling problems. There have even been cases where children have purchased loot boxes with the credit card associated with the account leading to a big surprise when the parent’s credit card statement arrived.

What practical steps can you use to mitigate these dangers?

In response to some of the dangers listed above, here are 5 top tips to keeping your child safe while they enjoy their gaming online.

1. Keep communications to the group only

Use the settings within the game to keep communications within the group, removing the ability to communicate with strangers. This removes the “trash talk” and ensures your child only communicates within their smaller group.

2. Education and utilising best practices to keep their details safe

Educate your child about not sharing their personal information with anyone, ever. Passwords should be kept secret and accounts should not be shared. Best practices should be used such as not reusing the same password across multiple websites (in case 1 was to be compromised) and using 2-factor authentication via email/a mobile phone reduces the risk of someone gaining access to both accounts.

3. Agree reasonable time limits and clear boundaries when playing online

Ensure your child has limits on the time they can use the PC and restrict access during unsociable hours such as when the rest of the family is asleep. Promote balance and the merits of sport/excerise alongside their new hobby.

4. In-game purchases as a treat, in moderation

Loot boxes are fine as a once in a while treat but expectations should be set so your child knows the chances of them opening something extraordinary are minimal.

5. Encourage your child to involve you in their hobby

You can’t be with your child all the time when they are gaming online so you’ll need to trust them. Take an interest and encourage them to talk with you and share anything that they don’t think is normal. Has someone approached them out of the blue? Has someone asked them to share their account details or visit a website that is suspicious? Your involvement can offer them guidance and wisdom to avoid a costly mistake by being caught off guard.