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Kids Gaming - How to Keep Your Video Gamer Safe

Excessive screen time, talking with anonymous strangers online, cyberbullying—parents of children who play video games face some real fears. Here's how to help your kid game safely and responsibly.

By
Cheryl Butler,
Episode #534
playing video games with child

Now that summer break has arrived, our kids have a lot more free time on their hands, and they’re looking to spend much of it hanging out with their friends. Gaming is a favorite pastime for today’s kids. It’s quite possible many of your child’s friendships were made online and they spend some of their time socializing virtually while playing video games.  Busy parents are looking for ways to keep screen time both safe and balanced, particularly during a longer stretch of unstructured time like summer vacation. Today’s guest can help!

Dan Feierabend is a professional audio producer, high-level gamer, and the father of two. He’ll share ways you can establish safe gaming protocols for your family. Because Dan loves the art of gaming, he realizes the many ins and outs of today’s video game world. He encourages his own children to enjoy gaming while he acts as a coach to instill good online behaviors and interactions.

Today we’ll cover:

  1. Parental controls for safety

  2. How to handle cyberbullying

  3. How to safely communicate with others online

  4. Managing screen time  

  5. How to be a part of your child’s gaming world

Parental Controls for Safety

Dan says:

Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch consoles all have Parental controls that allow you to set a password, limit content by age and ESRB/PEGI ratings, restrict purchases, control screen time, and even turn them on or off with a smartphone app. Nintendo’s app even lets you set predetermined screen time and display on-screen warnings when your young gamers are out of time or have exceeded their time.

Parental controls are the most powerful way to keep your kids safe, but the menu systems can be challenging to navigate. Here are some links with setup instructions for different consoles to get you started.

two boys playing video games

How to Handle Cyberbullying

The days of kids being taunted, teased, and even physically abused face-to-face have been taken to new heights online with cyberbullying.

Stopbullying.gov says, “Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets. Cyberbullying can occur through SMS, Text, and apps, or online in social media, forums, or gaming where people can view, participate in, or share content. Cyberbullying includes sending, posting, or sharing negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else causing embarrassment or humiliation. Some cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful or criminal behavior.”

ConnectSafely.com adds, “Anonymity is more of a factor in cyberbullying than in traditional bullying. Targets may believe that more people are witness to the abuse than actually are, which can compound the pain. And since online socializing can occur 24/7, home, weekends and vacation can’t be havens from the hurt.”Stopbullying.gov shares some excellent tips on how to combat cyberbullying in their article Kids on Social Media and Gaming.  

  • Ask your child what his favorite game is and then watch him play it, asking questions so you get a better sense of what goes on throughout the game. You might even try it yourself!

  • When your child is online, get into the habit of checking in on occasion and ask whom they are playing with. This keeps you in the loop and lets your child know that although you’re giving him space, you’re still involved.

  • Emphasize safe online behavior, particularly not sharing personal information with strangers.

Dan says:

Interactions with others online are often positive and cordial. Everyone is there for the same reason, to compete and have fun! Much like sports and schoolyard games, there are always winners and losers, and it's challenging to not have an emotional response either way. Understand that sometimes video games are frustrating and outbursts are normal, but engaging in toxic behavior is not. Let your gamer know that strong language, particularly anything racist, homophobic, or otherwise derogatory, is not acceptable and will result in immediate suspension of privileges.

How to Safely Communicate With Others Online

Cyberbullying is not the only worry when it comes to online gaming. It’s every parent’s nightmare that some of the people their child interacts with online may not be who they say they are. Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Learn to Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly, by Nancy E. Willard, is a wonderful resource for parents. Some of the concerns Nancy covers include:

  • Self-produced child pornography

  • Sexual “hook ups”

  • Sexual Harassment

  • Hate Groups/Gangs

  • Gambling

  • Hacking

 

Dan says:  

First and last names, phone numbers, email addresses, and physical addresses are the obvious things you should remind your children never to give to people online.

Explain to your child that they must never, under any circumstance, accept gifts or rewards from someone online without your approval.

It's also a good idea to talk to them about things strangers might do to get information. It's easy to give digital gifts like loot boxes, game codes, and even cash cards. Giving gifts is an easy way for a potential predator to build trust, which can lead your child to lower their guard. Explain to your child that they must never, under any circumstance, accept gifts or rewards from someone online without your approval.

Although the idea of child predators is frightening, it’s far more likely your kids  will gravitate toward their peers and avoid chatting with adults. Still, it’s a good idea to be aware that video games attract players from all demographics. In Fortnite, for example,  33 percent of players are over 25 years old.

two girls playing video games

Managing Screen Time

In addition to the complex and sometimes challenging world of cyberspace, another deterrent for parents can be the physical amount of screen time kids invest in their video gaming hobbies. Kids of all ages, but particularly those who have access to smartphones, can be attached to their devices 24/7.

Sabrina Stierwalt, Ph.D., Quick and Dirty Tips’ Everyday Einstein, discussed whether screen time is bad for kids in a recent podcast. Sabrina shared a detailed list of recommendations for handling media use with children from the American Academy of Pediatrics. If your child is older than five, the AAP provides a tool for developing a media use plan that suits your family’s needs. 

With my own eight kids, I never had to worry much about managing screen time until the blockbuster game Minecraft came on the scene in 2011. I loved that this game allowed my kid’s creativity to soar as they built unique 3-D worlds, but there was no question it became a mini addiction, even interfering with homework and regular family time. Soon after, Fortnite took the gaming world by storm and, like many other parents, I struggled to balance my kid’s real-life responsibilities with their online fantasy worlds. A recent study showed that among kids ages 10-17 who played the game Fortnight occupied a whopping 25 percent of their free time!

Dan says:

Communicate when it's time to take a break, but let your kids finish the current round or match before insisting they stop playing.

At times, your child may bargain for "just one more." If they’re playing competitively online, it can be difficult to leave in the middle of a match. Their team may lose if they have to quit early, or they may even be penalized and suspended from further online play.

If you allow your child to play online games, set rules ahead of time. Let them know that if you ask them to stop playing, they must stop right away or risk immediate loss of gaming privileges. Tell your child you understand that sometimes they can’t just quit or pause, so you’ll make a special allowance depending on the circumstances. It can be challenging to hold your ground, especially if your child gets emotional and tempers flare. But generally, a 10-minute heads-up should give your child time to finish a match.

If you allow your child to play online games, set rules ahead of time. Let them know that if you ask them to stop playing, they must stop right away or risk immediate loss of gaming privileges.

There was an evening when my daughter started an online game of Overwatch right before dinner was served. She pleaded to finish the match and I allowed her to play while we ate. When she was done, she had to eat her dinner cold. She was remorseful rather than angry. She’s been mindful ever since. Some may see this style of parenting as overly permissive, but in my experience, it builds trust and strengthens the lines of communication.

How To Be A Part of Your Child’s Gaming World

I personally don’t see the attraction gaming holds for children, yet I have two kids who can’t wait to get their hands on their console controllers when they get some free time.  (One of those is my recent college graduate, the other a three-sport athlete.) I’m a bit green when it comes to video games, but because my kids enjoy it so much I’d like to learn more. Here are a few more tips from Dan for parents like myself who want to be a part of our child’s gaming world.

If you have a gamer in your house, you’ve likely heard of the hit games Fortnite, Paladins, or Apex Legends. These games are free-to-play team-based online shooters for the PC and consoles, which means they’re accessible to everyone. They require team cooperation and include text and voice chat systems for communication.

These games give rewards in the form of "loot boxes," which may contain custom costumes (often referred to as "skins"), emotes or dances characters can add to their repertoire, and other upgrades. These rewards don’t provide an in-game advantage, but they do incentivise playing daily and for long periods of time. Many child behavioral therapists attribute these in-game rewards to the addictive nature of these games, as it can stimulate the reward center of your brain and release dopamine.

As a gamer myself, I've been sure to have conversations with my kids to keep them balanced and safe. I regularly talk to them about what they are playing, reward them with new games and gift cards for good grades or no-cavity dental visits, and play games online with them to help coach good behaviors and interactions.

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