This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.
The dangers that children faced a generation ago were mostly physical ones—like a scraped knee or a broken arm. However, with the rise of the Internet, today’s threats are increasingly digital ones.
According to data analytics firm NPD, nearly every kid in America plays video games, and many of the most popular games are online ones—meaning that they enable players to interact with other players in the game.
Kids love these types of games. Not only can they play them with their real-life friends, but they can also make new friends with players of different ages and cultures from around the globe.
But, because of their interactive nature, online games pose special risks for children. And given the rapid pace at which these games are evolving, parents need to stay vigilant about how best to keep their children safe while playing them.
What kinds of risks are there?
While there are many positive aspects of online gaming, parents need to be aware of the emotional, financial, and even physical dangers that accompany these games. Some of the most common risks include:
1. Bad language and inappropriate content
Even if your child’s game is an age-appropriate one, he or she may still encounter foul language, provocatively dressed characters, sexually suggestive behaviors, or worse. In one popular game geared towards elementary school-aged children, a girl’s avatar was sexually assaulted by a hacker who got around the security settings.
Online bullying is rampant. According to a British study, nearly 60% of young gamers have been bullied while playing an online game, and 47% said they had been threatened.
Because online gaming communities are anonymous, players often say things that they wouldn’t say if they were face-to-face with another person. These interactions usually involve verbally abusive comments. However, some young players are being doxxed (when a third party publicly reveals a person’s private information) or swatted (when someone falsely claims that a hostage situation or similar event is taking place at a player’s home, resulting in a visit from a police SWAT team.)
3. Unwanted contact from strangers with bad intentions
While being able to communicate verbally, in chat rooms, or via instant messaging is great for making new friends and developing strategies for team games, it can also it can also be a way for strangers to gain your child’s trust and coax personal information (like their name, school, or address) out of him or her. Some predators use this data to target young players for scams or in an attempt to meet them in person. Communicating with strangers can also lead to cyberstalking.
4. Financial loss
Many games encourage your child to spend money (either virtual or real) in the game. After a child has downloaded a game, in-app purchases and loot boxes tempt players to spend additional money—often with the lure of improving the child’s abilities or appearance in the game. If your child had access to your credit card information, you could quickly lose a lot of money.
5. Infection by malware
Kids searching for cheat codes or free virtual money for their online game often go to file-sharing sites that harbor viruses, worms, or other malware. For example, a YouTube search for “free V-bucks” (the virtual money used in the game Fortnite) returns millions of videos, many of which steer children to another website with the promise of free currency. However, the new sites often trick children into downloading unsafe files or direct them to other malicious sites.
6. Being spied on
Attackers can control any webcam or audio device that’s connected to the Internet and use it to exploit your child. For example, hackers gained access to over 4,500 American webcams in 2013 and then streamed these feeds on a Russian website.
What can you do to protect your child?
The dangers that exist in online games are real, and you are correct to be concerned. Luckily, there are some steps you can take to reduce the chances of your child being affected.
1. Learn about the games your kids are playing
The first thing you should do is find out everything you can about the games your kids are playing. This means you need to:
- Verify the game’s age appropriateness: There are several different types of age rating systems, including PEGI ratings (a European rating system that uses numbers to indicate age appropriateness) and the ESRB system (an American system that uses letter designations, like “E” for “everyone.”) However, gaming platforms, such as Steam, sometimes don’t have age ratings.
- Play the games with your kids: By joining your children in the game, you can see who your kids are playing with and talking to—as well as who’s trying to talk to them. You can also find out what subjects the players talk about, what kind of language they use, and what tone the conversations take.
2. Protect your devices
Before you let your kids play on any phone, tablet, computer, or gaming console, you should install a robust security product and keep it updated. It’s also a good idea to keep the software on your gaming devices updated to be sure it contains the latest security fixes.
Make sure the passwords for any gaming accounts that your kids create have strong passwords and tell them how important it is to keep them secret.
3. Talk to your kids about cyber safety
One of the best ways to protect your kids is to sit down with them and explain why they need to be careful whenever they’re online. Tell them that just like real life, there are good people and bad people on the Internet, and there are things they should do to avoid becoming a victim.
Here are some good general rules for staying safe:
- Only play with people you already know.
- Don’t share any personal information. This includes photos of you, your name, and your phone number. Other things to keep secret are your email address, passwords, street address, and what school you attend.
“If you wouldn’t say it or take it from a stranger at the local arcade, please don’t share it (overshare it) or take it (download it) in the global arcade. Communication in gaming can be fun, and we reduce risk when we keep the conversation about the game – ONLY the game.” – Richard Guerry, digital safety expert
- Don’t open emails from strangers.
- Don’t respond to mean or upsetting messages.
- Never agree to meet in real life with someone you encounter online.
- Tell your parent or other trusted adult about anything that makes you uncomfortable.
- Know how to block, mute, and report bad behavior.
- Stay away from file-sharing sites and illegal downloads.
- Think twice before you do anything online. Once you post something, it stays on the Internet forever. Don’t give bullies or scammers any ammunition to use against you.
“Remember, if you feel uncomfortable at anytime, it’s okay to click-out. Always tell an adult if you’re being harassed or threatened.” – Sue Scheff, family Internet safety advocate
4. Set time limits
The less time your child plays online games, the less likely it will be that he or she will encounter anything harmful or inappropriate.
Obviously, time limits will vary depending on the age of your child and the type of game he or she is playing. A 30-minute time limit makes sense for a 5-year-old playing Angry Birds. But there’s no way a 14-year-old playing a complicated multiplayer online roleplaying game could actually accomplish much in that short a time. The key is to make the time limits practical and realistic.
5. Use parental controls
Gaming consoles often have parental controls that you can use to prevent your child from viewing harmful material or downloading inappropriate games. Some games also have privacy settings that let you control what information other players can access about you and prevent any contact from strangers.
6. Wipe old devices
Before you throw away or recycle any device that your child has used to play online games, make sure you delete any information that someone could use to learn your child’s identity or to hack into their accounts.
7. Prevent unauthorized purchases
The easiest way to stop your child from making unauthorized purchases is to make your credit card information hard to find. Most importantly, don’t leave the card out where your child might find it.
Beyond this, there are some device-specific things you can do:
Create a separate account for your child. These kinds of accounts don’t have a wallet associated with them, which means your child can’t add funds or payment methods to the account.
To keep your child from buying things through an Xbox console:
- Create a special code that you must enter before making any purchase.
- Don’t store your credit card information in your child’s account. Buy an Xbox gift card for your child if you want him or her to be able to buy anything.
- If you share the device with your child, be sure to sign out of the console every time you use it.
You can ensure that people must enter your password whenever they want to make a purchase by turning off “Streamline my purchase experience” in Settings.
If your child plays online games on an iPhone or iPad, you can turn off in-app purchases in the Apple App Store. You can also create a PIN that you need to enter before buying anything in the Apple App Store and Google Play.
- In Settings, choose “General” and then “Restrictions.”
- Select “Enable Restrictions.”
- Enter and then re-enter a Restrictions passcode. (Be sure to choose a code that your child doesn’t know.)
- Disallow In-App Purchases for any app you choose.
Note: If you have a Family Sharing plan, and your child is age 13 or over, then your child can ask to buy things with Ask to Buy.
The Internet can be a wonderful place for our children to explore, as long as we equip them with the knowledge they need to avoid the risks involved. For more information about keeping your kids safe online, see the following articles: