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Games Consoles…Keeping Your Kids Safe Without Ruining Their Fun

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Kids love gaming. They fricking love it. They spend hours at a time on multiplayer virtual worlds with other people all over the world, often forgoing the bare necessities of eating, drinking and sleeping just to stay in the game. I get it - I did when I was growing up when games like ‘Doom’ and ‘Dune’ were all the rage! But at risk of me feeling old, games consoles have changed a lot since when you and I were kids. They now expose kids to all kinds of adult content, create the opportunity to spend a lot of money with coercive ‘in-game’ purchases and functionalities that make it real easy to chat to complete strangers.

What are the risks and should parents be worried?

Let’s look at the four key risks associated with today’s online gaming;

  • Cyber Bullying – games consoles nowadays act just like the social media sites you’ll be familiar with. Users playing on a game can range from very young children to adults. They can be a middle class 13 year old girl in Kent, to a 41 year old star wars fan from Slovakia. People from completely different parts of the world can interact (which can be great) and it can be an incredibly competitive environment! Due to these cultural differences combined with the competitive environment, this can attract some of the worst cyber bullying out there.
  • Child Grooming – sexual predators are becoming increasing aware that mainstream social media sites are improving their monitoring capabilities and as such, they have moved onto games consoles which are farer behind the curve in terms of online safety. They use online games as the reconnaissance phase of their attacks, to select and then engage their victims. The use of personas to hide their real identities make online gaming the perfect tool for these kinds of criminals.
  • Adult Content – a lot of games are extremely violent and can have very distressing content. Most games will have PEGI rating stating what age range the game is suitable for.
  • Addictive – some games are highly addictive and some kids can find it hard to stop once started which can have behavioural and health impacts on the child. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently added “gaming” to their ‘Disorders due to addictive behaviours’ manifesto which also deals with the more ‘traditional’ addictions such as drugs, alcohol and gambling.

For example, at the time of writing, a game called Fortnight is taking the globe by storm. It is a cartoon based shoot ‘em up targeted at children but it has been criticised by the NSPCC for allowing adults to talk sexually to children and for it being dangerously addictive.

Reading this as a parent might generate the knee-jerk reaction of “Right, my children are never gaming again!” which would be understandable but it would be forgetting all the benefits online gaming can bring. They can be educational. They are incredibly social. Many children are learning social skills much earlier in their development as a result of their interactions in online gaming. Internet matters.org state that online gaming can “develop [kids] creativity, nurture relationships with friends and improve strategic thinking”.

What’s more, a study featured in ‘Nature Reviews Neuroscience’ found that online gaming can;

• Enhance memory, brain’s speed, and concentration
• Improve multi-tasking skills
• Group play provides social benefits
• Develop early learning skills for younger children

These are all great positives, not to mention that it provides exposure to a booming industry where jobs such as software developers and coding are likely to be highly useful career skillsets in years to come. So, the risks must be considered in the context of all the benefits they bring too.

At the moment, although online gaming poses a number of risks for the everyday family, it is certainly not significant enough to warrant a generic ban on it from parents. There are a number of benefits kids can get from a healthy amount of online gaming and as such, the risks posed by it is something parents should just be aware of. The good news is that there are 4 key things parents can do to ensure their kids never fall victim to cyber bullying, sexual predators, over-spending or being exposed to adult content.

What You Can Do To Protect Your Kids

1. Education for Parents

Both for the parents and the kids is critical. Parents can use the PEGI age rating system to ensure the games are applicable to their age range of kids. Now let’s be honest here. We all allow our kids to play games that are slightly ‘too old’ for them but as long as they aren’t too old this isn’t usually an issue. You don’t need to know everything about the games your kids play but knowing the basic functionality can go a long way. For example, ask yourself these kinds of questions;

o What is the PEGI rating compared to my child’s age?
o Does the game allow players to chat freely with anyone in the world (with no restriction)?
o Does the game have parental controls that can be exercised?
o Is there the ability to spend real money buying things within the game? If yes, can anyone using the game make purchases?
o If my child is being harassed by another player, can they block contact with them?
o Does this game exhibit any pornographic, drug-related or graphic violence type scenes?

Knowing the answers to these kinds of questions will build a rounded view of whether the game is applicable for your child or not.

2. Education for Your Child

Here are some tips to ensure they’re aware of the dangers without scaring them witless!

o Ensure they are aware that ‘stranger danger’ still applies to the online world as much as the physical world.
o Before allowing them to play a new game, sit them down and discuss the different features that games has. Try not to lecture them but make it a conversation. Ask them what they think of the ability to chat to anyone they like and what the possible consequences may be.
o Ensure they are at least aware and that if anyone of anything makes them upset they can tell you or use the blocking/muting/reporting features to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
o Set ground rules with your child about how long they are allowed to play for, when and what games, how they should behave towards other gamers and educate them on the dangers associated with social media sites as they also apply here (i.e. meeting up with people they have met online).
o Remind them not to give out any personal information, photos or videos online.
o Ensure they know not to take the conversation off the game. Sexual predators often do this to try and circumnavigate the safety controls in place on the gaming platforms.

3. Parental Controls

For consoles like Xbox, Wii and Playstation, they have inherent parental control features which you may want to consider exercising (i.e. turning off the ability for your kids to purchase extra features or access particular content). Most consoles have the ability to turn off certain features such as online messaging, voice chat, etc. Navigate to saferinternet.org.uk for helpful guidance specific to certain games consoles.

Top Tip: many games consoles have an internet browser functionality so ensure they don’t use this to circumvent any parental controls you may have on other devices. Most of these browsers on game consoles can be disabled from the settings menu.

4. Continue the Conversation

Games change over time and so do our kids. Ensure your dialogue remains open with them so that you can keep a beady eye on how they’re doing, without having to loiter over their shoulder. Watch out for signs of addiction, which include;

o Do they lose interest in existing hobbies and extra curriculars?
o Do they get strong withdrawal when you take it away?
o Has gaming become all they talk about? Has it become the dominant activity in their life?
o Do they use gaming as a release to try and ‘fix’ a bad mood?
o Does it affect their diet? Have they resorted to only eating junk food so they don’t need to move from their seat and stop gaming?
o Do they continue to play despite knowing it is having a negative impact on their lives?
If you’re con concerned about what is going on you can always try the following tips;
o Ask them to periodically let you listen to what is being said (if they’re using headphones) or ask them to play sound on speakers rather than a headset.
o Play games with them, using their account to see who they are talking to.
o Ensure they have a specific ‘child’ account so the console can tailor the functionality according to their age.
o Create a group of their known friends and block unknown connection requests. This ensures they are only interacting with their friends from school and no one else can try and speak to them.

Hopefully you have seen that actually online games can be a force for good. There are a number of real risks parents need to be aware of but there is also a lot that can be done to ensure that our kids remain safe.

If you want to read more, see some really awesome resources below from organisations like GetSafeOnline, InternetMatters and the NSPCC.

> GameQuitters
> InternetMatters
> GetSafeOnline

Any comments of questions you might have about this article, do get in contact! That’s all for now.

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