As the school year comes to a close you may find your kids with more time on their hands to play online games. While these games can help build skills from teamwork to multi-tasking, it’s important for parents to understand the risks involved. The online gaming environment is largely anonymous, which creates the possibility that your kids could encounter offensive content, fraudulent activity, and problematic communications from other parties in the online gaming community. With these risks in mind, we’ve detailed a series of “stay safe” steps that will inform and empower you as parents with the tools and resources necessary to make informed decisions about your kids’ online gaming.
1. Invest Time Upfront
As with any new device, it’s critical to take the time to help your kids properly set up their devices and gaming accounts. Online gaming devices and platforms like Xbox 360, Xbox One and Xbox Live offer numerous parental controls and tools that help you choose the content, communication, and sharing capabilities that are right for your family. We strongly recommend parents take the time to understand these controls. Initially, you should set up your kids’ account as child accounts. Doing so will limit the adult-themed content and experiences that they are exposed to and ensure that you can set up parental controls. If your child’s account is initially set up as an adult, the service and other users will view that account (and the user behind the account) as an adult. This can be especially problematic for younger children who do not have the maturity to understand the type of gaming content or the users they may interact with as an “adult.”
- Set Your Parental Controls. They give you the ability to customize and control many features on your kid’s account. With child accounts, you’re able to choose what content your kids can access, from games to apps to movies. Some entertainment systems such as Xbox One also allow you to set individual controls for each family member, including the ability to manage what your kids can purchase and what websites they can access. To help you determine what’s appropriate, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) uses a numerical ratings scale for games and apps to indicate age-appropriate content. You should also take extra precautions to adjust the visibility of your child’s profile and user information and monitor other information they can share online such as gaming activity and history.
- Establish Communication Guidelines. Online and multiplayer games often involve text communication and in-game voice chat. You should establish guidelines with your kids about what appropriate communication entails, as well as set controls on their accounts that enable or disable certain communication features. Xbox One offers additional security features, including requiring parents to approve friend requests.
- Know Your Toolset. Take the time to understand the tools that are available to all gamers who interact with the community. Examples include the ability to “mute” a player (this player’s voice cannot be heard while muted) and “blocked” (no communication of any kind can be received from a blocked user).
2. Understand the Code of Conduct
Online gaming platforms monitor users and accounts for inappropriate behavior in order to maintain a safe gaming environment. For example, Xbox Live can permanently suspend an account or ban a console if a player continuously breaks its Code of Conduct. It’s important to know what your child can get in trouble for so you can have conversations about being an appropriate online user:
- Modifying an account: Buying, selling, or using modified games or hardware often results in suspensions. Remind your kid that although it may seem harmless, it’s against the rules to unlock game rewards or rankings without earning them. The companies that build these games and online gaming platforms take this very seriously, since cheating negatively impacts legitimate users. There are a number of online services that offer “mods” and it is common for kids to follow their friend’s advice to use them. This type of activity could result in a banned account or even a banned console, meaning your child’s experience will be severely impacted. Additionally, these “modding” services are a frequent source of fraudulent activity such as social engineering, stolen accounts and even identity theft.
- Harassment and Bullying: Online gaming does not allow abuse, threats, bullying, or inappropriate user-generated content. Although this might not seem like something your kid would do, parents should realize that online anonymity and opportunity often embolden kids to behave differently than they would in person. (On the other hand, if your kid plays with someone who is hostile, pressures them for personal information, or sends disturbing materials, they should ignore them, ask them to stop, or block them).
3. Monitor and Engage with Your Kids
It’s crucial to take time to monitor your kids’ online activity once in a while. Watching your kids play will help you understand how their games work and foresee potential problems. You have several parental control options to keep tabs on your kids’ activity:
- Activity Reports: Child accounts give you the option of receiving regular activity reports on your player’s actions.
- Reputation Score: Some online gaming sites will even score your child’s online behavior for you. Xbox One, for example, gives a reputation score to each player based on their interactions with the gaming community, offering an easy way to judge your kid’s behavior. A red or yellow score indicates negative behavior on the part of your player. The Xbox Live Policy and Enforcement team has made it easy to look up your child’s (and your own) enforcement history and Reputation score right here: www.enforcement.xbox.com.
- Account Security: Discuss the importance of account security with your children to ensure that they protect their information and avoid account theft. Caution your kids not to give out their account login, even to friends.
Most importantly, online gaming is a part of your kid’s life—treat it that way. Stay involved in their gaming goals and accomplishments as you would their sports teams or art classes. Get to know their online friends the way you would their school friends. Host family game nights and create fun competitions between your family members. Showing a sustained interest will help you establish a positive dialogue with your kids about their online gaming. This (rather than any parental control option) is your most important tool when it comes to ensuring a safe and secure online gaming environment for your kids.
Cover image courtesy of Flickr.