Keeping Kids Safe During Video Game Play

Tech usage in kids and teens today continues to skyrocket as they are exposed to new apps, games and devices at rates far beyond other generations. According to the National Institute of Health, more than 90% of children older than 2 play video games, and three-quarters of American households own a video game console. According to a recent Pew Research survey, nearly half of teens say they use the internet “almost constantly.”

With usage so high, it is important for both parents and kids to be aware of what safety risks are associated with these platforms and game content, and how to be proactive about mitigating them. Shane Rafferty, a technology support specialist on Lurie Children’s Family Services team, offers guidance on how to go about prioritizing safety for kids who love to game.

What are the benefits and potential risks for kids who game?

Social gaming is how many kids, particularly teenagers, socialize with their peers. While in previous decades, teens would often call and talk on the phone or use instant messaging for to keep in touch, gaming, particularly using voice chat software like Discord, is a main source of “after school” socialization. Also, social gaming can be used excuse to create a more natural environment for verbal conversations/check-ins that can help peers support each other and process difficult experiences together.

Many online multiplayer games require teamwork and coordination. By playing online, kids can gain and develop many social skills in a fun environment. It can also create opportunities to help others by mentoring or okaying more supportive roles such as “healers”. Multiplayer games introduce players to communities of those with familiar interests that they may not be able to easily find in person. There are numerous examples of players making lifelong friends with those that they would have never met in person due to the accessibility of online gaming.

While things like online predators, social isolation and malware/viruses have been linked to video game play in the past, these are risks that exist more frequently in other types of online engagement, but are still worth acknowledging for general online safety. These, along with things like potential violence exposure, bullying and exposure to inappropriate language and content are topics that should be raised as part of ongoing conversations between a child and a caregiver, whether it’s related to online play or in-person engagements.

How can I keep my child safe as they game?

  • Get familiar with the type of content your child enjoys engaging with online.
    • It can be hard to keep up with how the internet constantly changes, so ask your child questions about their favorite games and what they enjoy doing on the computer. Even better, ask if you can join them for a session to watch and have them explain things as they go along. This will give you a better idea of what they are interacting with while also showing that you are interested in what they are doing. Kids, particularly school-aged, love to feel like they are experts in something, so many will be excited to show off their knowledge to their parents.
    • The more aware you are of the type of gameplay your child is involved with, the easier it will be to set up specific boundaries around the content if needed.
  • Have an open and direct conversation with them about how they can maintain their own safety online and what to look out for in terms of uncomfortable requests from other gamers.
  • Make sure children know that sharing personal information with internet friends is not safe.
    • Playing games with trustworthy peers that your child knows in real life is one thing, but for other players who your child doesn’t know personally, things like home address, phone number and the child’s full name should be kept private and out of a child’s user profile.
  • Encourage the use of strong passwords and screennames vs. their real names, particularly for younger kids whose parents might not yet be comfortable with their full identity online.
    • Using more abstract figures in a screenname is always recommended vs. identifiable numbers like birth year or address.
  • Reiterate that child and adolescent friendships made on the internet should stick to that forum unless the right safety measures are put in place to take it “offline.”
  • Empower your child with the tools for how to react if they are asked to meet in person or enter a private chat room by a stranger online. They should not engage and alert their caregiver, teacher or another trusted adult in their life.
  • Have ongoing conversations with your child about violence and how it’s impacting them, and keep in mind what is age appropriate regardless of what may be popular at the time.
  • Set clear boundaries with your child around gaming time limits and the importance of taking screen breaks to rest their eyes and mind, take a walk, get something to eat, as well as the importance of maintaining in-person friendships in addition to online. Things like schoolwork, family time, chores and other aspects should take priority over gaming, and setting and enforcing clear and consistent expectations should lead to less conflict and appropriate usages as defined by the caregivers.

Do games or devices take any safety measures for kids?

As you get more familiar with your child’s gaming content, you can also take a more proactive approach with the parental controls that most modern games offer to help limit certain in-game interactions. With these, you can do things like set limits based the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) rating – an organization that regulates and rates game content based on age groups – and control the amount of play time per day, among other measures. Each gaming system will have different settings, but there are plenty of helpful guides that can be found online for suggestions and setup help.

Most online games have a voice chat feature that is integral to the game. That said, it’s possible that kids might run into “toxic players,” i.e., players with a particularly bad attitude who use inappropriate language and “trash talk.” If that’s something you do not want your child exposed to, investigate the game settings to turn off voice chat or limit to those on their friends list. In most games you can also mute specific players, so your child won’t miss out on opportunities for teamwork or socialization with others.

Additionally, have a conversation with your child about why certain behaviors and language are inappropriate or harmful both online or in person. Whether on the playground or in school hallways, kids will eventually interact or become aware of these types of personalities or bullies in real life. Getting on the same page with them about how to either safely engage or ignore these types of peers on or offline could be impactful for them in the long run.

What is the appropriate age to allow my child to start gaming?

Ultimately, determining what age is appropriate for a child to begin gaming is up to the parents or caregivers. While internet games exist for virtually every age group, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that screen time is limited to educational programming with a caregiver between 18 and 24 months, to promote the healthiest brain development. For children 2-5, AAP suggests limiting non-educational screen time to about 1 hour per weekday and 3 hours on weekend days. For ages 6 and older, they say to encourage healthy habits and limit activities that include screens.

While a child may be interested in trying a specific game, it’s also important to consider the complexity of the controls and gameplay, and what may be too advanced for their developmental stage. Something too difficult could end up causing more frustration than fun. In these situations, a caregiver could play the game and ask the child for input and decision-making help, so they are still involved in the fun.

For more information about gaming content and screen/media consumption, CommonSenseMedia.org is a great resource that covers games, TV shows, movies and other media. The site offers age recommendations according to reviews and feedback by both parents and kids, and explores other important topics such as representation, messaging, and violence in media.

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