by Lynette Owens
As the world moved indoors due to COVID-19, the time we spent online rose dramatically. We filled up our days with video chatting, movie streaming, remote working, and distance learning. Many of us also turned to gaming applications as a form of entertainment and connection with others. I’ll admit, I still play Candy Crush Jelly as a way to unwind.
In the first three months of 2020, mobile game downloads grew 75% and time spent on those games increased 47% compared to the same period a year ago. Sales of gaming equipment even reached $1.6B in March 2020, the highest level it has been since March 2008.
That shift has brought millions of kids to the gaming world. As parents during this challenging time, some of us have allowed our kids more time online with games to keep them pre-occupied, stay connected with friends, or even to bond together as a family. But left on their own and without guidance, kids may expose themselves (or even you) to risks such as overuse, contact from strangers, or an exhausted credit card.
This is not a call to remove all consoles or mobile apps from your life. I have always been pro-video games and recall spending a few hours as a kid playing Space Invaders, Frogger, and later wasting a lot of free hours on my MacPlus playing Tetris or Risk with friends. This time was fun and relaxing. I do believe playing video games ourselves as parents helps us better understand and appreciate why our kids enjoy them.
But as games have become more complex and require more dexterity with controllers, I find myself less enthusiastic and prefer to observe rather than experience the games my kids love. From the outside looking in, a few things do worry me. Some games have a lot of gratuitous violence or other age inappropriate content. And almost all now have a social dimension that Atari games never did: The ability to play a game against family, friends or strangers, chat in real time with whomever they’re competing against, and one-up another person’s high score – all from afar.
There is also a financial risk with games that, even in pre-COVID-19 times, was worrisome. Back in 2013, Apple settled a class-action lawsuit after they were accused of making it far too tempting and easy for a child to play apps endlessly while unknowingly putting hours of game time onto mom and dad’s tab. In the last seven years, Apple has greatly improved its settings and expectations of application developers to avoid this problem, but many parents are still unaware of the risk and of how to prevent it.
Today’s gaming environment for kids is far more engaging and dynamic than the days of games like Galaga. As kids turn to gaming to fill the time, we need to make sure it’s safe and healthy for them. Here are a few things to consider beforehand:
- Consider what they can play: Keep content age appropriate and educational, and involve them as you consider these things. Ask them “what is the goal of this game and how do you reach it?” Check out ESRB.org or PEGI.info for game descriptions and age ratings or check out Common Sense Media for some recommended lists.
- Outline when can they play: Talk to your kids about their day, and how to fill up their 24 hours. Dr. Michael Rich of the Center on Media and Child Health recommends creating a schedule with your kids and showing them how much of each day is taken up by the things they need to do to stay healthy. For example, maybe it’s eight hours of sleep, two hours of online classes, one hour of homework, taking a walk/exercise, or sitting down for meals. From there, work with them on what’s left for fun – of which online games can be a part. They will learn to appreciate and budget their time.
- Define time limits (if needed): It’s important to make sure kids understand there are limits to how long they can play. Some games end after a certain set time. Others go on endlessly. Consider whether your child can self-regulate and stop the game after an agreed upon time. Otherwise, consider games that have an end time to them, such as FIFA or Rocket League. This can help ensure they don’t get sucked in for an endless number of hours.
- Identify where they can play: If you need quiet time, perhaps have them play in another part of your home, but somewhere that allows you to easily check in on them. Consider having the kids use headphones if a game is too noisy.
- Agree whether this is a social activity or not: Can they play with others? Do the family or privacy settings allow you to limit who they can interact with? Is there a chat function and can you restrict it? Are the chats pre-scripted or free form? The best way to understand all of this is to play the game with them once or twice so you at least understand how the social parts of it work. If you’re not comfortable or don’t feel they’re old enough to be engaging with others online, consider restricting the social features. If you’re okay with the game, remind your kids of safe, kind behavior towards others and always use privacy settings in a way that best protects them but also allows for a meaningful game experience. Encourage them to come to you if they experience anything scary or troubling, and report those users to the app or game, if possible. If it is extremely disturbing such as grooming behavior from someone your child does not know, consider contacting the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.
- Keep it private and secure: When you sign up for a game, use multi-factor authentication to give you an added level of protection from someone trying to access your account. Review and use privacy settings wherever possible. Some gaming apps may want access to your device’s camera, microphone, location and contact lists. Consider whether this is necessary and decline if it isn’t. If anyone ever asks them in a game, remind your kids never to give out private information to anyone they’ve never met, such as home address or passwords.
- Understand the costs: Some games are free, but require spending to continue or to enhance play (also known as a ‘freemium’ version). Consider blocking in-application purchases or requiring a password to spend money in the game. You can also consider using prepaid gift cards so that your child’s spending is not charged to your credit card. Pre-paid cards can also help your child learn how to budget their spending. Free versions of gaming applications may also be riddled with advertisements that could tempt your child to click or tap and go off into another part of the internet. Consider a paid version to avoid these. Be aware of loot boxes, which are a group of virtual items you can obtain in the game by spending real money, which can help you compete better. The concern about loot boxes is that you never know what is in your “loot”, making it similar to gambling. The first time you spend, you may not get what you wanted (like a lottery ticket), so you may be tempted to keep spending until you do.
- Beware of cybercriminals: Gaming is a huge, lucrative industry. Remind your kids once they become part of the gaming world, they may come across the work of cybercriminals. Some of them try to create gaming applications that may look like they are legitimate, but may actually be a fake version or put your personal information at risk. Cybercriminals may also lock you out of games until you pay a ransom. Do a bit of research and stick to games which have a good reputation and are used by lots of people. Use reputable, up-to-date security software on your devices to avoid downloading or clicking on anything that could be harmful. For more complex games, such as Fortnite or Apex Legends, criminals are selling “cheat codes” which you can purchase in order to defeat another player or win a game (aimbots and wallhacks are some of these methods, which you can read more about in our Trend Micro Research paper). Gaming companies are catching on to these methods, so remind your kids that cheating will not only get them kicked out of the game, but could put personal data, like credit card information, at risk for attack by cybercriminals. Remind your kids to have fun while they play, but to do it in a fair and safe way.
There are many things to consider when you allow your kids to enter the online gaming world, but these risks don’t mean it’s “game over” for all. You don’t need to become an avid gamer to guide your kids, but you do need to spend a bit of time understanding what your kids are doing and experiencing in these games. Consider the issues we’ve outlined above to help your kids keep games a safe, healthy, and fun part of their day.