Tips to Help Manage Your Kids’ Video Games and Mobile Apps

January 7, 2016

Do you think technology enhances your children’s lives? If your answer is “yes,” you’re not alone. According to the latest research from the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), the majority of parents believe technology use has a positive effect on their children’s future, career, and life skills.

At a surprisingly early age, our children become connected and engaged online, and soon enough, are using the Internet for school work, socializing on smartphones, watching YouTube videos, and playing games. It’s clear that technology can make our kids more informed, stay connected with friends and family and provide an endless means of entertainment. But most parents are also well aware of the potential risks that come with their children’s use of technology. Whether they are playing games online, downloading apps onto their smartphone or tablet or posting on social media, following are a few simple steps that parents can take to help mitigate those risks:

Check The Rating

Similar to the rating information assigned to “boxed” video games, ESRB ratings for digitally delivered games and mobile apps provide parents with general guidance about age suitability. Depending on the type of content and the context in which it appears, it may also provide content descriptors and interactive elements.

ESRB rating information is displayed for mobile games and apps in Google Play, the Mozilla Firefox Marketplace and for downloadable games on Microsoft’s Xbox Live store, Nintendo® eShop, and the PlayStation® Store.

The ESRB rating system includes:

  • Rating categories - suggest age-appropriateness. ESRB uses age-based categories including E (Everyone), E10+ (Everyone 10 and older), T (Teen), M (Mature) and AO (Adults Only).
  • Content descriptors - indicate content that may have triggered a particular rating and/or may be of interest or concern. ESRB currently uses close to 30 different content descriptors for depictions involving violence, suggestive themes, language, gambling and controlled substances, among others.
  • Interactive elements - provide information describing certain features that can be found in digitally delivered games and apps. These may include the sharing of personal information or the user’s location, if the game or app enables the purchase of digital goods, if users can interact, and/or if unrestricted Internet access is provided.

Following is an illustration of the three-part ESRB rating system for digitally delivered games and apps:

Activate Parental Controls

Most devices today feature settings or controls which parents can activate to manage what and how their children play. Depending on the device, you can block certain features like in-game purchases, access to the Internet, location tracking or games by their age rating. More robust parental controls on certain game consoles can even include setting time limits and a friends “whitelist,” a list of approved friends with which your child can play. These controls are PIN or password-protected. Once you activate them, never share your password with your kids or they will circumvent the controls you have put in place.

ESRB provides step-by-step instructions for setting parental controls for your video game console or handheld device, or personal computer. For smartphones and tablets, review the general settings or user manual, your app store’s website, or search for parental control apps that offer additional settings that you might find helpful.

Teach Healthy Online Habits

Regardless of whether you activate settings, you can help your kids develop healthy online safety habits, including keeping personal information private. Many apps include user interaction in which players can communicate or play with other users. Kids need to know not to share information online that they wouldn’t share in the real world. Off-limits information always includes passwords, financial data, home address, phone numbers, and offline meeting places like schools or parents’ offices. Discuss how and when to share personal information and sensitive details about friends, birthdays, hometowns, and weekend plans.

Kids should also understand that the ability to be anonymous or invisible when interacting with others on the Internet is not a license to be disrespectful, profane or mean. If others act in that fashion, you may be able to block them or, better yet, can report them to the publisher of the website or app directly.

While many apps are free to download, they often offer additional digital content for purchase, which may be charged to your account. Discuss digital in-app purchases with your children, and what the rules are for your family. Most smartphones require a password to enable a digital purchase. Once again, don’t give your password to your child if you don’t want in-app charges to rack up on your account.

And last but not least, exercise moderation. It’s important that kids balance playing video or mobile games with other facets of their lives, including schoolwork, sports and social activities.

Quick Tips for Parents

  • Check the age and content rating information.
  • For mobile games and apps with an ESRB rating, remember to check for additional notices describing interactive elements, such as user interaction, digital purchases, if unrestricted Internet access is provided and/or the sharing of location or personal information.
  • Use parental controls, which are available for all video game consoles and leading app stores like Google Play, to help manage which apps and games your kids download and play. And keep your password or PIN a secret!
  • Teach your kids healthy online habits that mirror the ones you expect from them in the real world.
  • Discuss with your child how in-game purchases will be handled.
  • Use the ESRB’s Family Discussion Guide to help structure a conversation with your child about establishing some ground rules about the video and mobile games they play.
  • Monitor and/or play games with your children. There’s absolutely no substitute for being an involved parent.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Written by

Patricia E. Vance

* Denotes member of FOSI Board

As president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), Ms. Vance leads the non-profit, self-regulatory body for the video game industry in the United States, which includes the assignment of age ratings to video games and mobile apps, enforcement of marketing guidelines adopted by the video game industry and operating Privacy Certified, an FTC-sanctioned COPPA Safe Harbor privacy seal certification program. Ms. Vance is also the chairperson of the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC), a ground-breaking global rating and age classification system for digitally delivered games and apps that reflects the unique cultural differences among nations and regions.

Ms. Vance also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences and was appointed to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's Online Safety and Technology Working Group (OSTWG), which was established by Congress to make recommendations on the protection of children on the Internet through education, labeling and parental control technology.

Prior to joining the ESRB in 2002, Ms. Vance spent 18 years at Disney/ABC, with responsibility for the development of a broad range of new media and market initiatives. As Senior Vice President, General Manager of the ABC Internet Group, she oversaw the operations and strategic development of ABC-branded news and entertainment related web sites, and was also responsible for launching and/or managing several interactive entertainment and educational software publishing ventures, the direct response marketing of ABC programming and ABC's in-flight entertainment business.

Ms. Vance holds a B.A. in International Relations/Russian from Washington University in St. Louis, is the mother of two daughters and lives in New York, NY.