Online gaming can be a fun way for kids to connect with others, but it’s important for them to understand the risks and know how to handle certain situations. For example, kids should avoid posting pictures of themselves or releasing other personal information to their fellow gamers, and know what to do if another player starts harassing them.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board, which assigns the familiar age and content ratings for video games and mobile apps, gives a breakdown of the various types of games:
- Boxed games – Games that come on a disc or cartridge that are purchased from a store or online, and played on a game device like a console, handheld or PC.
- Digital download – These are downloaded directly to the console, PC or handheld device. Most consoles (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii) have their own online marketplaces where games can be downloaded. Some are full-length feature titles while many others are more casual in nature, like puzzle and word games.
- Mobile storefronts – Smartphones and tablets let users download apps from online marketplaces linked to a credit card, e-wallet or your mobile phone account. Games are the most popular category of mobile apps. Like all games, their content can vary in terms of age-appropriateness.
- Subscription – Online games or arcades where the player signs up for an account that lets them play a game (or many games) for a certain amount of time for a fee. Subscription services typically eliminate the need to physically possess a game at all by streaming the gameplay experience right to the device or accessing it from the service’s own servers (aka “cloud gaming”).
- “Free-to-play” and “freemium” – These games are typically supported by ads instead of purchase or subscription fees; “freemium” games let you play a limited portion for free but require that you pay to access new content or features. Mobile apps, browser-based games and other types of casual games will often use one of these business models.
- Social networking games – Played from within a social network like Facebook, these games encourage users to share content and updates with others in their social network. These games often include the opportunity to buy in-game items with real money, reward players for recruiting their friends to join the game, and may leverage some of the user’s personal information (which is included in their social network profile) to tailor the game experience or advertisements to their interests.
- Keep a clean machine: Before your kids start playing, be sure your computer has an activated security suite: a firewall, anti-spyware software and anti-virus software. Having the latest security software, web browser and operating system is the best defense against viruses, malware and other online threats.
- Make their password a sentence: Be sure your kids have strong passwords for their gaming accounts. A strong password is a sentence that is at least 12 characters long. Focus on positive sentences or phrases that you like to think about and are easy to remember (for example, “I love country music.”). On many sites, you can even use spaces!
- Remain positively engaged: Let your kids know they can come to you if they feel uncomfortable when playing a game. Participate in the game with your kids.
- Check the rating: Checking for a game’s Entertainment Rating Software Board’s rating - on game packages, online or in some mobile app storefronts – is a great place to start in terms of gauging its age-appropriateness. Many games rated by ESRB also have rating summaries that describe in detail exactly what type of content a parent would want to know about, along with specific examples. You can even access them from the store using ESRB’s free mobile app.
- Empower your children to handle problems: Make sure your kid knows how to block and/or report a cyberbully. Tell them to keep a record of the conversation if they are being harassed and encourage them not to engage the bully. You can also notify a game’s publisher or online service about the offender. Check the online service’s or game publisher’s Terms of Service for instructions on how to file a complaint about another player, and be sure to include as much information and evidence as possible about the player in question.
- Protect personal information: Make sure your child’s user name does not give away their real name, location, gender, age or any other personal information. (Examples: beach01, book2). Your kids should also use an avatar, not an actual picture of themselves.
- Protect your identity: If your kids are playing a game that features live voice chat, make sure they are disguising their voice. If the game does not have this feature, do not let them use voice chat.
- Limit their time playing games: Some consoles offer parental control features that let parents decide when and for how long their child can play, who they can play with, or even let you “mute” or disable the ability for your child to hear the game’s online chat (which can at times be pretty colorful). These guides have instructions to setting up game device parental controls. Mobile phones and tablets also tend to offer settings by which a parent can restrict access to certain apps (usually by their age rating) and/or turn off online access or location services altogether.
- Do your research: Make sure you read and understand the ratings for the games that your children are playing. Some game sites have multiple games with different ratings, so check all of them.
- Keep the computer out in the open: If your computer is in a central location, you can monitor your kids’ online activities.
- Explain privacy: Make sure your kids know that they may not send out any materials to fellow gamers that contain private information and/or data.
- Enable parental controls: Use built-in parental controls on your Web browser.
- Don’t let your children download anything without your permission: This includes cheat programs that may claim to help your child perform better in the game, but really could be carrying malware.
- Prohibition won't work: Your children will use computers and games consoles, even if it's at school or at friends' houses. If you talk to your kids about risks and good judgment, they will be able to get a lot more out of the web.
- Keep a clean machine: All Internet-enabled devices need to be kept up to dateto protect them from malware and other threats. Security protections are built in and updated on a regular basis. Take time to make sure all the mobile devices in your house have the latest protections. Before you start playing, be sure your computer/gaming system has the latest operating system and software, including anti-virus protection, web browsers and apps.
- Make your password a sentence: A strong password is a sentence that is at least 12 characters long. Focus on positive sentences or phrases that you like to think about and are easy to remember (for example, “I love country music.”). On many sites, you can even use spaces!
- Speak up: If another player is making you feel uncomfortable, tell a trusted adult.
- Report cyberbullies: Learn how to block and/or report another player if they are making you uncomfortable. Keep a record of what the other player said, but do not engage them.
- Protect your personal information: Never reveal your real name, location, gender, age, or any other personal information. Keep your user name vague and use an avatar rather than an actual picture of yourself.
- Protect your identity: Do not use voice chat when playing an online game, unless there is a feature that allows you to disguise your voice. Do not use a web-cam while playing an online game. Do not present yourself as dating material.
- Put a time limit on yourself for game playing.
- When in doubt, throw it out: Do not accept downloads from strangers. This includes cheat programs that may claim to help you perform better in the game, but really could be carrying malware.
- Be web wise: Do not send out materials to fellow gamers that contains personal information and/or data.
- Think before you act: Do not meet a stranger from your gaming world in person. People are not always who they say they are.
- Be a good digital citizen: Know the risks and practice good judgment.