THE BLOG

Online Games for Kids: Essential Safety Lessons

08/15/2012 10:34 am ET | Updated Oct 15, 2012

While parents of online game-playing children often focus on time and search limits, of equal concern to them should be establishing standards of online behavior for their children. As such, it's imperative that you also consider other important issues such as making sure kids don't bully or harass others, pass along embarrassing photos or engage in gossip about their peers. Many parents simply default to attempting to regulate the act of going online. But it's becoming increasingly clear that policing the details of what is happening during the time that kids do spend online is just as important, and that more parents need to take an active part in doing so.

The key takeaway here: Many additional issues outside of traditional game-related concerns can arise from online play and the ability to interact with fellow players over the Internet. In this post, we'll look at several of these issues and present some tips and resources that can help you deal with them and better educate your children on how to play safely online.

Because online games are populated by other people -- and not just the people you'll see around town, but in towns all over the world -- there are a great variety of expressions, attitudes and behaviors represented within these games. Your children will be exposed to individuals of all ages, ethnicities and economic backgrounds, and of different upbringings. Obviously, this is a positive: Play can be a wonderful way to broaden kids' horizons. But you will also want to be actively involved with your children's play habits online and understand what they are doing and, to some extent, who they are doing it with. After all, you never know just who's who out there in a sea of virtual hand-drawn or 3D avatars, and every society has its own cultural values and norms.

Of course, you also have to trust your children. If you have followed sensible guidelines and regularly communicate with your kids about their game playing habits, your tots will probably be smart and safe, and able to thoroughly enjoy their experiences online. Still, it's important to get to know the places where they want to play, including making a point of not only researching these online playgrounds, but also personally visiting and scouting out each location. (A goal made easier by the near universal availability of free trial accounts.) Just remember that -- as in real-life -- the individuals that they play with on the Internet, and who shape their online experiences and interactions, may act differently if they know that a parent is present.

Ultimately, regardless of how well-adjusted kids are, or to what extent you're familiar with the online landscape, it bears noting: Dangers are present. But like the real world, the virtual world can also be a perfectly safe, fun and enjoyable place if you know the hazards to watch for. Possible trouble spots include:

Sexual Content and Foul Language

Online games are seldom about risqué or troubling themes. In fact, many are based on innocent everyday topics such as food or fashion, or, when story-driven, generally focus on issues of good vs. evil. In the case of massively multiplayer online games, players can also freely role-play to discover their own preferences within the game world, at the same time forging bonds with friends through shared experiences which all take an active hand in shaping. However, there may be areas, situations, encounters, scenarios and references presented in certain games that may be more explicit that you are comfortable with, and there will, in all likelihood, be some salty language in those that support chat sessions.

Prohibiting exposure to controversial dialogue or themes is obviously a personal preference, as everyone's definition of "controversial" differs. It's also tricky to enforce such guidelines, as any game in which players can communicate in real-time can suddenly and unexpectedly play host to the odd four-letter word. But if you are concerned about exposing your kids to such content and experiences, there are many websites and games specifically dedicated to younger kids, where they are far less likely to encounter such situations. Quite a few other alternatives also offer parental controls that let you restrict levels of online interaction, eliminate chat options entirely, or feature auto-scrubbing features that filter out instances of inappropriate behavior or cursing.

Online Arguments

The Internet provides myriad forums on every conceivable topic on which we can discuss and debate issues. This leads to a lot of robust discussion, and, given human nature, a lot of colorful arguments, oftentimes with crude humor and foul language to match. Online arguments are common, and even healthy to a degree: If we didn't have opposing viewpoints on matters, the world would be a far less interesting place. But if the arguments become time-consuming and/or devolve into personal attacks and insults, they can be very upsetting for a child.

To ensure an optimum experience, encourage your child to engage in online discussion and debate, but let him or her know that there is a limit. It's just not worth getting overly worked-up over an online conversation, especially as some players deliberately set out to antagonize others for their own personal amusement. Should a particularly frustrating situation be encountered, encourage him or her to walk away from an inflammatory post and wait for ten minutes or so before responding -- although posts that resort to personal insults are rarely worth responding to.

If a particular message board or community becomes a source of chronically inflamed arguments, your child should take a break from that community for a few days, a week, or more. Chances are, a cool down period will make him or her see things in perspective. Online arguments are massive time and energy sinks: When it comes to disagreements over politics and social issues or just a debate over which video game system is cooler, it's exceedingly difficult to change someone's mind over the Internet.

Cyber-Bullying

Cyber-bullying is one of the most troubling online issues that kids face today. A child who is being cyber-bullied will find him or herself the victim of teasing, taunting and put-downs over email, online websites, instant message services, text messages and other online means. Even though no physical contact is involved, cyber-bullying can be every bit as devastating as traditional bullying, even moreso because it's not difficult for a tormentor to make his or her attacks anonymous and challenging to police and stop. Being a target of cyber-bullying can erode a child's physical and mental health.

By definition, cyber-bullying involves one minor (or minors) harassing another minor (or minors). If an adult becomes involved in sending threats or harassment to minors online, it is considered cyber-stalking and can invite serious legal repercussions.

Though it's tempting to immediately delete all offending emails, text messages, etc., they should be saved up in case they're needed as evidence down the road. Sometimes, cyber-bullying ceases once the antagonist gets bored, which is why it's also important to not respond to or retaliate against the harassment as well.

Some bullies are especially clever about disguising themselves. But most don't realize they can be tracked via their IP (Internet protocol) address and/or the latter half of their email (which identifies which provider they used, for example "@dogs.com" or "@cats.com"). If the bullying is severe, contact the bully's Internet provider. They may be able to revoke or restrict online privileges.

Using these means, help your child try and narrow down the source of the bullying. If confronted in real life, some cyber-bullies fall apart, as they no longer have the power of anonymity.

If the bullying becomes especially prolonged and/or troublesome, get in contact with your child's school, the parents of the bully, or the police. Always contact the police if threats of physical violence are involved.

It's also important to remind your child about the necessity of online etiquette. It's unfortunately not uncommon for a victim of cyber-bullying to become a cyber-bully him or herself.

In-Game Fraud

Believe it or not, certain in-game objects -- rare items, hard to obtain magic spells, even powerful characters -- sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars in actual real-world currency. In 2010, gamer "Buzz Erik Lightyear" even spent $330,000 on a Crystal Palace Space Station in virtual world Entropia Universe. With so much money involved, con men are everywhere: Make sure your children don't share their hard-won gold pieces or special freeze rays with someone they don't know. Shady individuals aren't an uncommon sight, and don't mind stealing from the unsuspecting. Never give out personal information, passwords or private data online either; you never know who's listening in.

Identity Theft

Kids are especially vulnerable to identity theft online, as they innocently chat or go about their simulated business. That's because many online games are inherently social, and invite players to connect and interact with one another in what they may not realize are all too public forums.

Even casual comments such as "today's my birthday," offhand remarks that reveal their location ("it's really hot today in Dallas!") or simple asides ("can't wait to go on vacation to Disneyland next week") can provide criminals with a wealth of valuable information. (Including data that can make them aware of children's favorite hangouts and daily routines or provide insight into when you're not home to guard your kids or possessions.) The problem being that, as you may notice from the 2D or 3D digital doubles which represent players on-screen, everyone is literally always in character, and nothing is as it seems. Just because that friendly Night Elf claims to be a fellow 12-year-old girl and likes to spend hours chatting about music, TV shows and cute boys with your tween, don't be fooled. While it may sound absurd to say so, there's always the off-hand chance that they could be a 37 year-old ex-con from Peoria.

Although an extreme example, it nevertheless illustrates a point. Paranoia pays in online realms, and because you don't always know who's eavesdropping or tuning in, you can never be too cautious with guarding personal info. Talk to your kids before granting access to online games make sure they understand the importance of keeping the real and virtual worlds separate and don't divulge details about themselves or your family. If you're still concerned, a variety of tools such as parental controls and buddy lists can let you block online access or limit kids' interaction to only pre-approved individuals.

Addiction

Video games can be exceptionally alluring for kids, says Kimberly Young, PsyD, clinical director of the Center for Internet Addiction and author of Caught in the Net: How to Recognize Signs of Internet Addiction.

As she explained to WebMD.com, that's because otherwise perfectly normal and intelligent children who are unhappy at home or unpopular at school can oftentimes assume the roles of more empowered fictional characters, making virtual life more appealing than their real one. But when playtime and habits cross over into the realm of the unhealthy or extreme, children can be subject to the hazards of addiction.

According to the Computer Addiction Service at Harvard University-affiliated McLean Hospital, these are some of the psychological and physical symptoms of addiction:

• Inability to stop the activity.
• Incessantly craving more computer or console time.
• Feeling empty, depressed or irritable when not at the computer or console.
• Neglect of family and friends.
• Lying to employers and family about activities.
• Problems with school or job.
• Carpal tunnel syndrome.
• Dry eyes, migraine headaches, and backaches.
• Failure to attend to personal hygiene.
• Sleep disturbances or changes in sleep patterns.

If you're concerned that your child or another family member is exhibiting signs of addiction, don't dismiss reservations or simply chalk behavior up to "phases," Young advises.

Instead, actively monitor behavior patterns and keep extensive notes on areas of concern including:

• When the individual plays and for how long
• Specific games played and the reactions that they provoke in the player
• Overall play habits and the manner in which games are consumed
• Attitudes exhibited before, during and after gaming sessions
• Problems that result from gaming, including how, when, why and to what extent they arise and persist
• How the party in question reacts to time limits
• Interactions with friends, family members and employers

Documenting the severity of the problem is vital, Young says, as is reaching out for aid from qualified healthcare professionals, as problems tend to intensify, not diminish over time if left untreated. Happily, a growing number of medical practitioners and treatment centers are actively working to address these concerns, and stand ready and on-call to provide aid should issues arise.

Sexual Predators

There are many ways to help protect children from falling victim to sexual predators. But the first and foremost is, as always, to communicate openly and honestly with them about the possible dangers such individuals present, and identify ways that they can recognize and avoid these criminals.

The FBI's Parent's Guide to Internet Safety offers a wealth of useful information, as do many other sites, such as www.safekids.com, www.kidshealth.org, www.connectsafely.org and www.wiredkids.org. We highly recommend that you check out these resources. WiredKids is especially good to share with children because it is very kid-friendly.

In addition, here are a few basic guidelines to share with your kids that can help them avoid predators when they are online, whether via a video game, chat environment, instant messenger, or social network like Facebook, MySpace or Twitter:

• Never arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone you meet online.
• Never respond to sexually explicit communications. Use the Block feature of the game or site to prevent any future contact.
• Never respond to messages or bulletin board postings that are suggestive, obscene, belligerent, or harassing.
• Never upload (post) pictures of yourself onto the Internet or an online service to people that you do not personally know.
• Never give out identifying information such as your name, home address, birthday, school name, or telephone number.
• Never download pictures from an unknown source, as there is a good chance that they could contain sexually explicit images.
• Never tell people publicly online where you're presently located, headed for soon, or planning to visit in the future.
• Be aware that whatever you are told online may or may not be true.

These guidelines are especially important to consider with younger children. However, it's also important to remember that most folks in online chat environments and video games are normal people who are often seeking legitimate friendships. Many people have met online and become friends in the real world. To go overboard and reject all possible friendships because of possible dangers may deprive your children from forming very meaningful relationships. In the end, striking a safe balance between openness and caution comes down to communication, education and setting clear boundaries.

Also worth keeping in mind: Adolescents in particular are moving away from being under the total control of their parents and beginning to explore more adult aspects of life, including sexuality. The best way to prevent them from falling prey to sexual predators or from obtaining false and misleading sexual messages is to educate them regarding the potential dangers and warning signs up-front, and keep lines of communication open. Although there are technologies that may allow you some degree of control over what content and individuals kids are exposed to, none are absolute. Teaching and empowering kids to make good, intelligent and responsible decisions is the best tool parents have at their disposal for offsetting potential online hazards.

Ultimately, while the dangers of sexual predation may not be as common in video games as they are in other Internet arenas, taking the same precautions when going online is advisable. Kids who are there to play in a game world often find overly personal approaches from strangers to be a "turn off," but some of the online sexual offenders can be quite clever and can gradually establish relationships with kids. Again, informed kids and informed parents, working together, are the best defense.