While online games provide entertainment, opportunities to learn skills such as problem solving and collaboration by connecting with other gamers, it’s important that children and teens are equipped to handle the dangers associated with online gaming activities. These dangers include excessive gaming habits, privacy concerns, exposure to inappropriate content and risks associated with in-game voice and text chat such as cyberbullying and online child grooming. This article will highlight and explore these dangers while providing some practical steps to minimise the risks, so your family can enjoy the benefits associated with safe online gaming.
Are certain types of online games higher risk?
When it comes to safety, different types of online games are better suited for specific age groups. For younger children, the safest option is to choose either single-player games or multiplayer games where gamers play exclusively with known friends and family . Multiplayer games on an open server including ‘massively multiplayer online’ (MMO) games present the greatest safety risks due to the large number of anonymous players interacting within the game, particularly via in-game voice and text chat. For this reason, we recommend parental caution regarding open server multiplayer games including MMO games for young children.
What are the hidden dangers of online games?
#1 Time on video games, not content, impacts behaviour
Playing online video games can be beneficial in moderation . In fact, mindful, self-regulated use of video games can support the healthy development of many useful skills, including problem-solving, creativity, spatial and hand-eye coordination . Overall, research suggests that it is not the content of video games that influences behaviour in children, but the amount of time they spend playing games . The argument that violent video game content triggers violent behaviour in youth lacks evidentiary support . Many reputable studies show that the reverse is actually true, with a societal-level increase in video game playing over the past decade corresponding to a lower level of violent crimes committed by youth .
However, in some studies, extended time playing video games has been shown to lead to lack of a healthy life balance and take a toll on a child’s emotional and physical well-being . Excessive gaming may contribute to or exacerbate existing issues, such as health and obesity, poor sleep habits, or poor academic performance .
#2 Cyberbullying is a possible danger
Cyberbullying can be a danger with online games, particularly with online multiplayer games on an open server and social media games . This bullying typically occurs in situations where players interact with each other directly, such as in-game messaging or voice chats. Young people should be aware of this risk and know the appropriate actions to take if they are cyberbullied or witness cyberbullying.
#3 Grooming can occur with multiplayer games
Multiplayer online games are popular with people of all ages and your child will likely encounter strangers if they play on an open server. Some strangers may use multiplayer gaming to build an emotional connection with a child to groom them for sexual exploitation . Predators have the opportunity to connect with children in-game through messaging or voice chats to gain their trust over time, which allows them to progress the communication outside the game. This makes it important to maintain a proactive interest in your child or teen’s gaming habits, foster an open dialogue about online safety and agree on boundaries around communicating with other players online .
#4 Some games may include age-inappropriate content
While there is no clear link between violent content in games and violent behaviour by youth in real life , parents may choose to limit a child’s exposure to certain content, based on their age and development. Age classification systems can provide useful guidelines on whether the content within an online game is likely to be age-appropriate.
#5 Privacy risks
Some children may not instinctively realise that sharing personal information that could reveal their identity online can put them in danger. Some games require players to create avatars with names. Other games may reveal a player’s location through geolocation or list the city where the player lives on their profile. Educating young people about why it’s important to maintain anonymity (such as hiding their location or avoiding using their real name) will help them take a conscientious approach to privacy.
Practical tips to protect your child when playing online games
#1 Encourage a healthy balance
Champion a healthy, balanced lifestyle and encourage your child to track the time they spend playing video games . Collaborate with your child to create a family media agreement that provides guidelines for the amount of time they can spend playing video games each day. You can also consider investing in parental control apps or software to track the total time spent on gaming sites and apps.
The key to maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle is to combine digital activities with a variety of real-world activities, such as outdoor play, reading and team sports . While this balance may look different for each and every family, a good rule of thumb is to limit recreational screen time to 2 hours a day . However, as children grow older they often need to use screens for academic purposes, which can make it hard to enforce screen time allocations. If this is the case for your child, it may be easier to enforce a mandatory screen-free period each day, as opposed to limiting their screen usage. We encourage parents and children to experiment and adapt these guidelines to suit their individual circumstances and needs .
If you notice a young family member is developing symptoms of video game addiction, such as lying to family or friends about video game usage, becoming irritable when asked to stop, or failing to balance their gaming with important school requirements such as homework, it is important to step in to help them find a healthy balance [14, 16]. Many experts encourage parents to open up a conversation and become more engaged in the addictive activity to better understand the factors contributing to the problem.
#2 Do your research and consider age ratings
When you and your child search for online games to play, check age recommendations and reviews for the game you are considering. This is the best way to protect against age-inappropriate content. Common Sense Media’s ratings and reviews are a good resource to consult. This website describes the themes and advises on the levels of violence, nudity, sexual activity, language and drug use for many online games .
If your child is young, guide them to age-appropriate games that foster positive skills such as learning, creativity and planning [2, 4] and support teamwork and social skills in a safe environment . Encourage critical thinking about the difference between reality and fantasy.
For adolescents, encourage video game literacy and healthy critical thinking about the gender, sex and racial norms presented in the games they play . Avoid games that have an R18+ rating but give your teens autonomy to choose which age-appropriate games they play .
#3 Maintain active involvement
To keep your child safe, participate and express an active interest in their online gaming habits . If possible, join in on occasional games with your child. Encourage transparency, open conversation and trust, and let your child know they can come to you if they feel uncomfortable, scared or upset at any time . Keeping an open dialogue will better prepare your family to deal with child grooming and cyberbullying risks.
#4 Openly discuss cyberbullying
Discuss the ways your child or teen should behave respectfully toward other players in a competitive environment and what steps to take if they are cyberbullied by a stranger or someone they know in ‘real-life’. If a young family member becomes a victim of cyberbullying, advise them to not retaliate or engage the bully further . Instead, ensure they know how to block and report the cyberbully and encourage them to keep a record of the conversation as evidence . You may choose to file a complaint against the cyberbully with the game’s publisher or online service .
#5 Educate your child to understand how to deal with privacy risks
Discuss with your child why it’s important to protect their privacy, personal information and identity . Some areas for discussion could include:
- How to choose a username that does not reveal their real name, location, gender, age or any personal information that makes them identifiable
- How to choose an avatar instead of a personal photograph
- Why it’s important to avoid sending private information to other players online
- When to avoid text or voice chat and when it might be ok
- Why it’s critical not to interact with players outside the game (for example, on social media) and why they shouldn’t meet other players in person
Final thoughts for parents
Online gaming is enjoyed by millions of young people around the world. Research shows that online games nurture key skills in young people, such as creativity, problem-solving, memory, coordination, concentration and social skills [3, 4]. However, it’s important to support your child as they develop healthy habits and provide clear guidelines on how to keep themselves safe online. No matter your child’s age, show an active interest in their gaming activities and encourage them to think critically about the content in video games. With careful management of these hidden dangers, children and teens can enjoy the benefits of online games as part of a safe and balanced lifestyle.