Just the other day, I was talking to someone about how playtime has changed since when we were children. The line that my parents used to say all of the time was “go out and play” and off we would go, getting into trouble outside, coming back with scrapes, bloody knees and bruises, covered in dirt and physically exhausted. However, now it seems that kids don’t want the physical outdoor experience, they want a virtual one.
With the abundance of gaming system, portable gaming devices and powerful smartphones, is it difficult NOT to be attracted to these bright and flashy games and online worlds. Kids these days hang out both physically and virtually. They chat via text messaging or Facebook. They exchange and share photos via Instagram. And many of them are connected through video games by having created personas and personalities tied to their login name and account. Each gaming system has the profile creation process and part of the process is crafting your avatar to “represent” you.
So with gaming worlds, your kids are creating virtual identities that either reflect who they are in real life, who they want to be or something completely different. And there is no way of truly knowing who exactly the person is that they are playing with, unless they are kids that you as the parents know or if the kids are physically planning with your own child in the room together.
Honestly, I think that most parents just sort of turn their kids loose on video games. The TV has always been the digital baby sitter but that is an easy device to control. It’s passive. You can easily censor the content coming out of it. When it comes to video game consoles or devices, it is a lot more difficult to control the content and the interactions. Video gaming is active. Not only do you have to ensure that your child is playing age-appropriate games (be sure to check the ESRB rating), you need to be sure that the people that they are playing with are known, trustworthy and not potentially dangerous.
Think about kids and social media – many of the same tactics, parent/child conversations and restrictions should apply to online gaming as well in my opinion. Just like social media, you need to talk to your kids about who they are playing with, especially if you haven’t enabled any type of parental restrictions on your gaming consoles, for example. Do you even know that you can do that? Do you know that people can follow your kids within various gaming communities and that these people can pose as just about anybody?
I always tell my kids that if they don’t actually physically know someone that they are gaming or interacting with online, then they should be extremely careful, and even then, not sharing personal or private information is always critical. I tell them, you don’t know if the beautiful butterfly-surrounded unicorn with the rainbow over its head who talks and acts like one of their friends, might really be some mentally sick, scary, perverted man who is stalking children from the safety of his own basement. That scares them.
When we first got our Sony PlayStation, I didn’t know about the parental restrictions. My kids were having a great time playing “Little Big Planet,” downloading worlds from other people and “playing online.” It was only when I was watching them that I noticed something odd. They were playing with a “batboy” (avatar that looked like a cute little ninja batman). He was chatting with them via text bubbles (other games allow for actual voice communication). My kids were saying that this bat boy was a bit odd and kind of violent. While he probably was a crazy 10 year old boy or something, I didn’t want to take a chance, and it was a good excuse for me to activate the parental controls of the PlayStation. I blocked people not on a white (allowed) list of friends. I restricted lots of public items. I even prevented the downloading of 3rd party content (but then changed it back so that my kids could download various worlds).
The point here is that game consoles have parental controls and I believe that most parents simply don’t enable them (or know that they exist). But there are some other tips that I would recommend when your child starts gaming online (and obviously, the older they get, the harder it is to control what your kids do online – so be sure that you set your best practices early on):
- Play games WITH them– the best way to really control your kids’ gaming experience is to play with them. At a minimum, sit and watch them, ask them how they do things and why they do it. Then try to actually join in the play.
- Audit the Games they play – as I mentioned, you need to be sure that your kids are playing age appropriate games. You can set these types of restrictions on game consoles as well as smartphones and other gaming devices. You can then circle back to point #1 above and just watch the games that they pay to know if there is violence, inappropriate sexual content, or other mature themes or online interactions.
- Play games in a public space – much the same way that you might have your internet-connected computer out in a public area of the family, you need to be sure that your gaming takes place in a place that can be monitored by a parent. Tough as it may be to endure the sounds, screams and excitement that comes with gaming, you need to be sure that you can monitor it.
- Restrict purchases – games are expensive as are gaming systems or smartphones. Parents are probably pretty tired of forking out tons of money not only on the systems but on the games themselves. Let’s face it, the game developers also are getting more savvy on how to convince kids that they need to do an “in-app purchase” or to buy additional levels. You, as a parent, need to ensure that you put up a firewall between your credit card and the games that you kids are playing. For example, on the iPhone, I have disabled the in-app purchases on my children’s phone. They simply can’t do it. And my wallet is safe.
- Set some duration and time limits – if children were left to their own devices (literally), they would play games 24×7. They seem to have the stamina for that. But we, as parents and guardians, know that is not good. So do your kids a service ensuring that their brains don’t turn to mush. Limit their screen & gaming time to an hour or two and only a few days a week and see if you can keep it to when you are up so that you can watch them.
Conversation, education and dialog with your kids is probably the best thing that you can do in the long run. It’s one thing laying down the rules and another one completely by explaining WHY you have put the rules in place. If they understand the WHY, they will be more likely to follow them with little or without question.
As part of this year long program that I’m doing with other parent bloggers and Trend Micro called The Digital Joneses, we are presented with monthly challenges as well as training on how to evolve our understanding of security and privacy within the family environment. This month, the focus is on online gaming. Obviously, I have many thoughts and ideas about this topic and have ever since my kids and my gaming devices became intertwined. There are lots of good articles over there to help you get your family even more protected.
Disclosure Text: For the Digital Joneses Study, Trend Micro has provided each of the bloggers involved, including me, technology and/or software items for use in the various challenges and/or for review. I have a material connection because I received these items for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am not expected to return these items or gifts after my review period or the study duration. All opinions within this article are my own and not subject to the editing or approval by Trend Micro or its contractors. More information can be found in my About page as well as here.
HTD says: Gaming can be fun! Just be sure that your kids do it safely!