First let me say that, just as I am not OK with it offline, I am not okay with the idea of my children talking to strangers online. But that’s exactly what happens in online gaming services like Xbox Live and Playstation Network. As soon as your child logs onto their profile or joins an online multiplayer game, they are able to communicate and compete with random people from all over the world.
This ability adds replay value and social component to video games, making services like Xbox Live very attractive to children, teens and adults. It’s just a shame that most people who use it will encounter some of the worst cyberbullying you can imagine, and in some cases, online predation.
My 12-year-old son has an Xbox 360, and trust that I’ve been told by other “Internet safety experts” that limiting my son from playing with others “takes the fun out of it”. Frankly, I don’t care. I only care that it’s safer for my son. And with as great a game system the Xbox 360 is, it’s super, super easy to have fun without interacting with anonymous strangers.
The reason I’m writing this article, however, is to generate awareness around the fact that cyberbullying runs rampant on online gaming services like Xbox Live. As parents, we need to be aware of exactly what that means and the best things we can do to protect our children.
What Parents Need to Know About Cyberbullying and Online Gaming -
One of the main reasons cyberbullying is such an issue in online gaming is because services like Xbox Live enable a wide age-range of players to play with or against each other in the same game. This is especially true in some of the more popular franchises, such as Call of Duty and Halo. And because children, teens and adults are all playing in the same game simultaneously, sometimes even on the same team, children are left exposed to adult conversations and adults are left to deal with screaming children, most of which are probably too young to play the game in the first place.
This combination, similar to that of an un-moderated, free-for-all chat room, is a ticking time bomb; something as simple as losing a round in “Team Deathmatch” could trigger trash talk fueled by racism, sexism and homophobia, from both children and adults alike. Not only is it upsetting to think what psychological effects this may have on a child’s mind, but it’s extremely upsetting to think of children using racial slurs or threats to someone else’s livelihood.
Sadly, it doesn’t stop there. If a bully wants to, they can extend their message in the form of a text, voice or video message. But bullies aren’t the only ones abusing this capability; scam artists and hackers use it to their advantage as well.
Phishing Scams -
A 25-year-old member of our editorial team shared an experience he had where he received a message on Xbox Live that contained a “trade offer”: he would send 1400 Microsoft Points (their virtual currency) in exchange for nude photo of the sender’s girlfriend. Based on his experience, people who play more online multiplayer games receive these “offers” more frequently.
What Can Parents Do?
Three things are true:
- Online gaming isn’t going anywhere.
- Cyberbullies won’t ever go away entirely.
- We can’t restrict our children from online multiplayer gaming forever.
But, there are also three things we can do:
- First, we can wait before allowing our kids to play online with other people. With your guidance and education, this gives them the opportunity to learn how to play and interact with others responsibly. I recommend waiting until they turn 16.
- Second, we can educate our children on what to do if they are the ones being cyberbullied, or if they’re being tricked into a scam. For example, we can teach them how to use the reporting tools in Xbox Live.
- And finally, we need to be aware of everything—aware of the signs that our child is being bullied, and aware of the signs that our child is the bully. If they game online, listen for things like verbal outbursts, name calling and frustrated attitudes after gaming sessions. If your child is constantly being bullied in an online game chances are they will play less often. This isn’t to say that a decrease in gaming activity is a bad thing, in fact, avoiding the bully altogether is always recommended, but parental intervention (or at least acknowledgment of the problem) can help prevent the aftereffects of cyberbullying, such as a decline in self-esteem and confidence.
When my eldest son was involved in online gaming his senior year in high school, we often talked about those he was playing with. We talked about the “goal” of his game and always talked about the conversation between the players. He would often play on the computer next to me as I was also online working. Communication between the two of us was key.
In addition to dialogue, education and awareness, parents can take advantage of the Family Settings that Microsoft has incorporated into Xbox Live. In fact, if you want, you can block Xbox Live usage altogether just by following the steps in that guide. If your kids play online games on a Playstation 3, you can follow the instructions for Sony’s Parental Controls here.