Online games can be great fun for your child, but make sure you can help them manage the risks.
Many games can improve your child’s coordination, problem-solving and multi-tasking skills, as well as help build social skills through online interactivity with other players. But it is also important to understand what might go wrong and have a negative impact on your child.
This article will teach you how to make sure your child has a safer environment for gaming, by limiting time spent gaming and avoiding strangers with bad intentions, unwanted purchases, and gambling.
How common is online gaming?
A study of Australian youth found:
- 81% of children aged 8-17 have played an online game.
- 64% have played a multiplayer online game with others.
- 52% have played with people they did not know.
- 17% have experienced bullying or abuse while playing a network game with others.
- 34% have made an in-game purchase and this rose to 45% when they played a network game with others.
How to create a safer gaming environment for your child
- Locate the computer or game console in an open area of your home, or if your child is playing on their handheld device, get them to do it in the family room.
- Install current security software on all devices to protect against viruses, malware, and other online threats.
- Activate parental controls and safety features on the device or in the app or browser. These controls can help restrict access to certain content and limit spending on in-game and in-app purchases
Build good habits
- Help your child to protect their privacy online—get them to use a screen name that does not reveal their real name.
- Teach your child not to click on links provided by strangers, like “cheat” programs to help with game play, which might expose their device to viruses or malware.
- Agree on strategies to help them to switch off, like a timer that signals game time is nearly over, with consequences for not switching off.
- Talk regularly with your child about their gaming interests and who they play with online. Help them understand the risks.
- Play alongside your child to get a better sense of how they are handling their personal information and who they are communicating with.
- Monitor the time your child spends online and be on the lookout for any changes in their activity, school, or social behaviors.
- Encourage your child to tell you if they experience anything that worries them or makes them uncomfortable.
Be aware of what they are playing
- Games vary in their level of violent or sexual content and may contain themes, language, and images that are unsuitable for your child.
- You can check the age guidelines and classification for an individual game on its website or product packaging.
- Ask your child what games they are playing or watch them while they play.
- Even better, play a game with them. Ask them questions like, “What is the game about?” and “Why would you like to play it?” Understanding their motivations will help you identify alternatives to unsuitable games if necessary.
- Review sites can also be a good source of information about age-appropriate content. Check out the Australian Council on Children and the Media, Kiwi Families (NZ), Common Sense Media (US), Parents’ Choice (US), and Ask About Games (UK).
Empower your child
Wherever possible, help them make wise decisions for themselves, rather than tell them what to do. Try to provide them with strategies for dealing with negative online experiences that will build their confidence and resilience.
Here’s some suggestions:
Many online trolls usually just want to get a reaction so the best thing to do is not respond.
If someone is persistently contacting your child and they don’t want them to, your child can block or report them. Most online games have the ability to block and report other players.
Change the settings
Your child may be able to change the settings to prevent a stranger from harassing them or being inappropriate in the future.
Talk to someone about it
Make sure your child knows they should talk to people they trust and get support from you or their friends.
Is your child spending too much time gaming?
There is no magic number of hours, but your child may be spending too much time playing games if their gaming starts to have negative impacts on them or your family.
Look out for signs such as:
- Less interest in social activities like meeting friends or playing sports
- Not doing so well at school
- Tiredness, sleep disturbance, headaches, or eye strain
- Changes in eating patterns
- Reduced personal hygiene
- Obsession with particular websites or games
- Anger when being asked to take a break from online activity, or appearing anxious or irritable when away from the computer
- Becoming withdrawn from friends and family
In some cases, setting firm limits as a family may be enough to help address too much gaming. But there may also be underlying problems like depression and anxiety that are linked to problematic internet use.
Grooming and bullying through in-game chat
Network games involve multiple players—in some cases even hundreds or thousands of players.
With these games, your child could be communicating with strangers, including adults, through webcam, private messaging, or online chat, increasing the risk of contact from online abusers, or bullying from other players.
- Children aged 11-12 are most likely to be bullied by other players, with around 22% in this age group reporting a bullying experience, compared to 17% of multiplayer gamers overall.
- 42% of young people bullied while gaming online responded by turning off the in-game chat function.
- 41% ignored the bullying and 38% stopped playing a game with the person.
- Nearly 30% reported the bullying to the game moderator.
Help your child maintain their privacy
- Encourage your child not to share personal information like their full name, birthdate, address, phone number, school name, or identifiable photos.
- Suggest they use an avatar or other image with a screen name that does not reveal their real name.
- Warn them not to talk to another player in private chat or game chat mode.
Be alert to grooming behavior
- Tell your child to notify you immediately if a stranger tries to start a conversation about something inappropriate or requests personal information.
- If you suspect your child is being groomed online, you should report this to your local police.
Support your child if they experience bullying
- Encourage them not to respond or retaliate.
- Keep a record of the harassing messages.
- Help them block, mute, or “unfriend” that person from their players’ list, or turn off the in-game chat function.
- Help them report the behavior to the game site administrator.
Limiting in-game purchases
Some games may be free to download but require payments to advance beyond a certain point or to access additional content not available in the free version — like special powers for a character. Similar incentives to buy may also be offered in paid games.
Talk to your child about costs
- Point out that games, apps, and extra features can cost real money.
- Set a reasonable weekly or monthly spend for apps, games and data, and help your child track their usage so they can make good choices.
Use parental controls
- Ensure you have set the parental controls on mobile devices and gaming consoles to limit in-game and in-app purchases, so your child has to ask to buy additional items.
- Consider keeping passwords for the App Store or Google Play to yourself so your child cannot purchase apps and add-ons without you knowing or set up “family sharing” so any purchases must be approved by you.
Gambling themes in online games
Games that feel like gambling or with gambling-like elements may make gambling more familiar and “normal” for young people.
Be aware of games with gambling-like elements
- Games that simulate a gambling activity such as poker, slots, blackjack, or roulette do not offer the opportunity for your child to bet, win, or lose real money, but they include actions similar to real gambling and often look and sound the same.
- Some games incorporate “loot” boxes (bundles, crates, and cases) containing items like in-game currency, equipment, tools, weapons, or “skins.” Players can earn or purchase access to a loot box without knowing the value of what is inside, like a lucky dip. There is concern that this feature can make it seem normal to pay for something whose value depends on chance, and may potentially lead to gambling.
- Skins—used in some games to alter the appearance of a player’s weapon, equipment, or avatar—can vary in value depending on how rare and popular they are. Although they cannot be exchanged for real money within the game, they may be used to gamble and be converted to cash on third-party websites.
Talk to your child about gambling
- Help your child understand that some features in online games are used to encourage more play and spending. Talk to them about gambling, what it is and its consequences both online and in the physical world. Here’s some helpful conversation starters:
- Betting companies need to make a profit to stay in business. If they weren’t making money off it, they wouldn’t do it. It’s designed for them to win.
- Gambling works on the rules of probability. The odds of winning don’t change.
- There’s no such thing as a sure bet. While a better’s knowledge might increase, luck and other factors can always change the outcome more.
- Gambling advertising can make betting seem less risky through “cash-back” and “bonus bet” offers. It’s still just as dangerous.
- Ensure that any in-game and in-app purchases are first discussed with you so that you know when and why they need to use an account, and how much they are spending.
Use parental controls
Ensure parental controls are activated on mobile devices and game consoles.
How can I tell if my child is gambling?
The following are some signs that can indicate a young person is beginning to gamble (associated with online games or otherwise):
- Spending time talking or thinking about gambling
- Obsessing about simulated gambling apps and games
- Obsessing about odds when watching sports instead of focusing on the game
- Borrowing money from family and friends
- Being secretive about their activities
- Having mood swings or appearing stressed
- Suffering forms of depression, including isolation from friends
- Skipping school or not doing as well as usual
If you think your child might be gambling online or is about to try it out, make sure they cannot access any accounts you have linked for payment of music, app, or game downloads.
Online gaming and gambling can be addictive to kids and without proper guidance, your child may be exposed to in-game bullying, teenage gambling problems, and other negative consequences. As parents, we play an important role in keeping our kids safe from such risks.