Easy Steps Parents Can Take to Safeguard Their Children & Teens
Whether your children play games on the home computer or on their mobile devices, Emagination Tech Camps believes that online safety is a critical issue that parents need to consider. “Safety” can mean different things in different situations, but the main causes for online alarm bells to go off generally fall into one of 4 categories:
Gaming addiction, or difficulty in getting your child to engage in non-gaming activities
Hackers & privacy breaches
Loot boxes, & in-app purchases
We love meeting people from around the globe via online games like Fortnite, Roblox, and Minecraft, but online “stranger-danger” is not as easy to spot when engaging from the relative safety of home. Online players often use avatars in place of real names or identities, so it’s important that you remind children to never give out their first or last name, birth date, details about their home or location, school name, or phone numbers online. Their avatar should never be an actual photo of themselves, as this opens a window to potential predators. Even if your child shares a few minor personal details over time, another player may be able to collect this data to dig further.
"Approximately 37% of the students in our  sample report experienced cyberbullying... Mean or hurtful comments and rumors spread online continue to be among the most commonly-cited." — Justin Patchin, Cyberbullying Research Center
If you have an online gamer at home, it is vitally important that you talk to him or her about appropriate gaming chatter and communication. If the online discussions become uncomfortable, abusive, sexual, or threatening they should stop the game and tell you right away. There are talented manipulators who like to “groom” young children into keeping secrets — especially those who might spend a lot of time alone or lonely, so regular online safety discussions should be a priority in your home.
To protect your family, the first step should always be to check and review a game’s privacy settings. These can control whether or not other players can see if you or your child is online, who your child can play with, and what game details can be shared with other players. Every console or app has different rules, so always read through the fine print.
Kids rarely want to admit when they are being bullied. Shame, along with a fear that a favorite game will be taken away are the main reasons bullying is hidden from parents.
If you suspect bullying is going on, look for signs that your child or teen is emotionally upset or nervous around internet-connected devices, secretive or hiding out in their rooms, withdrawing from normal activities, or seem to be avoiding discussions about online activities.
When this happens, the first thing to do is offer comfort and reassure him or her that you will protect them. Let them know it's not their fault, and praise them for coming to you for help. Tell them to ignore the bully, and discuss measures for reporting the issue to school authorities or law enforcement. Take screenshots of the threatening messages, pictures, or texts to use as evidence, and keep track of dates and times when messages appeared and were reported. If the attack was severe or sexual in nature, consider enlisting a therapist to help your child process the experience and learn constructive coping skills.
"Only 1 in 10 teen victims will inform a parent or trusted adult of their [cyberbullying] abuse... Over 70% of teens said that being able to block cyberbullies was the most effective method of prevention." — National Crime Prevention Council's 2019 report Stop Cyberbullying Before It Starts
Always block a bully as soon as you identify the problem, and limit access to the game until the threat is identified, or the player is removed by the game’s moderators. You don’t want your child to feel like they are being punished for reporting the issue, but let them know that their safety comes first.
Although addiction might seem out of step within an article about protecting online gamers, an ounce of prevention can be the safest step you take. Addiction of any flavor can be insidious, hiding in dark corners until it grows to become a very real problem. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) proposes that a diagnosis of an “internet gaming disorder” includes the following symptoms:
Sadness, anxiety, or irritability when games are taken away or unavailable
The inability to turn off a game or self-regulate time online
Loss of interest in daily activities, jobs, and/or relationships
Lying about how much time spent playing games
The ADA adds that most gaming disorders originate specifically from internet games. While children who don’t come to the dinner table because they want to finish a game are not necessarily at risk, parents should pay attention when friends, outdoor play, school or jobs, and personal hygiene take a back seat.
Parents who show an interest and engage in their child’s activity can make huge strides in reeling back and preventing aberrant gaming behavior. Set healthy time limits and take time to play with your child. If online gaming is completely foreign to you, let your child or teen introduce and explain the games they most enjoy, so you have a better context when looking for potential hazards.
"Online game statistics show that 22% of gamers spent between 61–80% of their time playing multiplayer online games. Some of the most addictive video games played today include Fortnite, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, and Assassin’s Creed." — 2021 Report by The Recovery Village
Once you set clear time parameters, stick to the rules. Remove access to tech after bedtimes, and look for ways to balance game time with outdoor or off-screen activities. The team at Emagination Tech Camps have found that young gamers get unplugged with non-tech activities like card games, live action role playing (LARPing), and inclusive outdoor play. Teens can be encouraged to go on a hike, take a bike ride around the neighborhood, or meet friends at the local rec center. If none of these suggestions motivate your child or teen to get up from the computer, it may require that you schedule weekly activities like dance, martial arts, music, or art classes.
In all cases avoid shaming. Shaming your child about excessive game play only results in lying and hiding. By making online gaming a family activity, you show your child that you care about their passions and, as a result, help them further develop critical thinking skills.
HACKERS & PRIVACY BREACHES
“According to the Akamai 2019 State of the Internet / Security Web Attacks and Gaming Abuse Report, hackers have targeted the gaming industry by carrying out 12 billion credential stuffing attacks against gaming websites… [online games] are one of the most lucrative targets for criminals looking to make a quick profit.” — Akamai Press Release
If you’ve never been hacked or had a credit card number stolen, you’re one of the few lucky ones. In 2020, 1 in 3 computer users in the United States experienced identity theft. 1.3 million of those affected were children costing families over $540 million in fraud damages.
Fraud protection and data security has become a big business, but early steps towards prevention can help you avoid costly violations down the road. The first thing is to educate yourself and your children about the signs of identity fraud. Never skip the 2-step verification process on any game, app, or software that asks for personal information or financial details, and ALWAYS use different passwords that are not easy for hackers to guess. Credit card companies offer security alerts; however, parents should also run regular credit report checks to identify any problems early on.
Again, stress the importance of not revealing personal information to your kids early and often. Gamers often mix their real names with a birth year or graduating year in public usernames. This is a huge no-no, along with sharing personal details on chats or streams. The personal details your kids may share with other players can be used by cybercriminals to unlock simple passwords or impersonate you or your family members.
Always vet gamers before they are allowed to follow your child’s profile, or customize the game’s privacy settings so strangers can’t access their profile. Also instruct your children to stay away from pirated games and cheat software, as these can be Trojan horses to spy on you or collect data on your hard drive.
You can also prevent hackers by subscribing to a virtual private network (VPN). VPN services are an added layer of internet security that scramble data cybercriminals use to spy on your online activity. There are also antivirus subscriptions you can purchase that are specifically designed (and frequently updated) to optimize the quality and safety of online gaming.
If your kid is an avid gamer, sign him or her up for Emagination’s STEM camp course on Cryptography. This course teaches about the various communication techniques for securing information and how to apply encryption and decryption methods. Before you know it, you’ll have your very own cyber security professional under your roof to protect your sensitive communications and data!
LOOT BOXES, & IN-APP PURCHASES
Loot Boxes are one of a myriad of ways that video game companies make money. They are a subset of in-game purchases (like upgraded weapons, outfits, or skills) that sell a surprise pack of items that are touted to improve or enhance the game play, and are often valued by their rarity or desirability. Think virtual Kinder Eggs with mystery toys inside.
"Many consumers of loot boxes are children. In the UK, 93% of children regularly play games, with estimates that some 25-40% of these have made a loot box purchase...12 out of 13 studies on the topic [of loot box purchases] have established 'unambiguous' connections to problem gambling behavior." — 2020 Gaming and Gambling Report by James Close & Joanne Lloyd
The application should always disclose if loot or upgrade purchases are part of the experience, but always make sure to look for this before your child engages with a new online game. In addition, make sure that you employ secure passwords on games that are accessed via computer, consoles, or mobile devices. Look for the Parental Controls in the game options, and turn on the option that requires a parent’s permission before approving in-app purchases.
Again, taking the time to play games with your child enables you to have conversations about the value of online and in-game purchases and how gaming companies make money. Spending quality time in this way helps you both make informed decisions, and will give your kid a reason to pause before making an unsafe decision.
Visit emaginationtechcamps.com/tech-courses to learn more.
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