Parents worry about their children. It’s part of being a parent. Around the time kids are becoming social with their friends and playing games on a console or computer, they’re going to start asking about playing online games – either through a console with an Internet connection or on the computer.
At this point, parents have a decision to make: let the child play or restrict them from online connections and games. There are pros and cons to both choices, but ultimately the choice is the parents’ to make.
Interactive, online games (i.e. MMOs) have good sides and bad sides. To start with the good, let’s look at what children can learn from gaming – assuming it’s done in moderation. First, gaming teaches communication, leadership, taking direction, making new friends through shared experiences, and more.
In general, outside of games, the Internet has a host of other learning opportunities and possibilities, including exposure to other cultures, seeing information not readily available otherwise, and interacting with people from all over the world and all walks of life.
On the same token, there are plenty of bad things about online gaming and Internet exposure as well. Children can be exposed to bullying, bad language, sexual themes, and worse.
Even more can be found on the Web, making online exposure even worse if it’s not properly contained.
Parents and their children must ultimately decide whether the child is mature enough to use the Internet. Quite often, online gaming is the child’s first real foray into the global interwebs and can be a positive, fun experience.
There are many things parents can do to ensure that the online gaming their child participates in is innocent, positive, and safe. Knowing what your child is doing and monitoring the activity is the primary way you can ensure that he or she is not being exposed to anything negative.
In general, if your child is mature enough to interact with other children their age without fighting, name-calling, or other immature behavior and if your child understands how to interact with adults in a meaningful, respectful way, then he or she is probably ready for online gaming.
Before letting your child connect to the game of choice and start playing online, it’s important that you know what the game is about. If for no other reason than so that you can interact with your child regarding the game (and understand what is being said) as well as learn who it is that generally plays the game itself and that your child may be interacting with.
Most online games that are suitable for children (i.e. generally non-violent and not full of blood and gore) will have players who are also, in general, also suitable for children. While adults do play these games (the average game player online is 34 years of age), they are often parents themselves and well aware that children are playing alongside them.
Many games are made specifically for younger children (under age 12) and will almost assuredly be full of kids only. Many of these games offer parental accounts which allow you to monitor your child’s activity, keep the payments current, and see profiles of who he or she is interacting with in-game.
It’s important that you sit with your child during some of the game play so that they know that you’re interested and looking out for their welfare. Showing an interest in the game can also be a spark of new interaction and communication with your child.
Once you know the game itself, you can set ground rules. Most games suitable for children can be played for short amounts of time (less than an hour) and be enjoyed. Some may require more time, so use your judgement after experiencing the game yourself.
How long you allow your child to play is your decision, but do not restrict the game time so heavily that your child can’t enjoy the game at all.
Lord of the Rings Online, for example, is a game suitable for children of pre-teen and teenage years. Playing for less than an hour at a time, however, often means that you will not be able to accomplish anything in the game and thus will not enjoy playing it. Star Wars: The Old Republic and World of Warcraft are similar in this respect.
Children’s games and most console games, however, can be played for less than an hour and still be enjoyed.
Whatever you do, be sure that your child does not spend too much time online, as this not only could lead to addiction and even neurological issues, but can also put your child at risk of becoming a target of predators.
There are plenty of tools you can use to help keep your child safe online. Most online games have very effective language filters for typed chat messages. Since this chat is often essential to game play, turning it off completely is not a good option.
Many games also have voice channels that allow gamers to speak with one another as they play. Be sure you’re very comfortable with this before allowing your child to participate in that way. There are no filters for this kind of interaction.
Other tools can be used as well, including those that may be built into the games themselves. Quite often, parental controls on children’s games allow you to record chat dialogue, grab screenshots of game play, and more.
Above all, though, teaching your kids safety online is the best way to keep things from getting out of hand. A child mature enough to play online is also mature enough to understand that, just like there are dangers when playing outside with friends, there are dangers when playing online with them as well.
Nearly everything is really just basic common sense. Make sure your child is using game names and character names that are appropriate and that do not personally identify him or her. Strong passwords that are not easily guessed and that are kept secret (teach children that they should never tell anyone the password – even if they claim to be from the game’s maker).
If someone in-game whom your child does not know personally outside of the game wants to meet, they should say no or talk to you before arranging the meeting. Not everyone who asks to meet in person is bad and often, children can make new friends that they would never otherwise have met outside of the game. It’s not unusual for players in the same area or city to get together in person once in a while. Just like adults, children can meet online too. Just be sure you’re well aware of and in control of the situation should this arise.
There are a lot of resources out there for concerned parents who want to know how they can protect their children online.
Microsoft has a Web Security section for kids online (see it here) as well as one specific to online gaming (here). Be sure to check out the downloadable PDF on the online gaming section that includes a contract for parents to use in setting rules for their children’s gaming.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also has a great parent’s guide to children on the Internet. You can read that here.
In today’s day and age, it’s not a question of whether your children will go online, it’s a question of when. Know up-front what you can do to help keep them safe and you’ll have a much easier time with this new development in your child’s life.