As the weather heats up, summer vacation lingers and boredom sets in, more kids are venturing indoors and looking for things to do.
Left to their own, um, devices, many children turn to online gaming, surf the internet or communicate via social media. Along with the enjoyment and diversion of the built-in babysitter also come the dangers and pitfalls; particularly when it is unmonitored.
Remember wherever children can be found online, there are sure to be those with evil intent.
To combat these dangers, groups like SafeOC, part of the national See Something Say Something campaign, are reminding parents and caretakers to be on the lookout. SafeOC has released a comprehensive list of tips for parents to combat the dangers of online gaming.
The dangers of online activity, discussed in depth on Behind the Badge, are widespread with cyberbullying, online predators, extremism, fraud, malware and stolen identity among them.
With many children spending time at home and unsupervised during the day, it is more important than ever for parents to be engaged and educated on the online activities of their kids.
According to a review of Census data, as of 2019, 95 percent of children 3-18 had access to the internet at home. Additionally, the Entertainment Software Association reports 227 million Americans play video games and that 74 percent of parents play with their children at least weekly.
Predictably the gaming industry report is largely positive about parents, their engagement and the enrichment gaming can provide. However, there are still millions of children online and there are those who can and do wander unwittingly into some very dark areas of the virtual world.
Parents must step forward
As with all areas where kids face potential danger, it is the responsibility of parents to be protectors.
Parents need to talk to children about safe online usage. And it needs to be an ongoing discussion through the years as kids age and technology evolves. Chances are a lot of kids who have grown up participating in the online world may be farther down the virtual highway than their parents.
For many adults it requires learning to catch up and stay abreast, maybe a lot of learning. Don’t worry, there are dozens of sites that can provide overviews and primers on engaging with technology with your children.
While it may be time consuming and even confusing, the stakes are a child’s safety. According to Enough Is Enough, an online site that advocates for child and family safety on the internet, “it’s critical parents and caregivers are truly aware of where a child spends his or her time in the digital world.”
Among the steps they, SafeOC and others suggest are the following:
- Review all websites and apps accessed by your child. Simply entering a child’s name into a search engine such as Google, Bing or Yahoo may provide clues
- Make sure you are added to your child’s “friends lists” on social media and other accounts
- Make sure all their profiles are set to “private”
- Know or learn your child’s usernames and passwords
- Before allowing children to use social media or gaming sites, familiarize yourself with the content on the site and thoroughly review the safety practices and privacy tools available
- Learn more about parental controls across the internet.
- Ensure webcams and microphones are off
- Check your credit card statements for unauthorized bills
Although many popular social sites require children to be teenagers to create accounts, they usually lack age verification technology.
To children and teens, such parental involvement may seem unduly intrusive, which is why parents need to try to make discussions positive.
“You have to be involved and build trust so your child comes to you,” Kathy Hatem, Director of Communications for Enough is Enough told Behind the Badge. “Be aware, do your homework and be involved with your child. Until a parent gets online to view their child’s online activities it is hard to know what (children) are exposed to.”
Not a game
Another potential minefield is the burgeoning gaming industry. The immense popularity of online gaming, with its mix of violence, sex and social engagement has made it particularly appealing not only for kids and teens but predators as well. Even seemingly benign children’s games, like Roblox or Among Us, may have portals that allow pedophiles and criminals access to children.
In 2021, the FBI began a campaign called “It’s Not a Game” that included a PSA to warn parents about the dangers of gaming platforms and to encourage them to engage with children about what they are doing online and who they’re talking to.s
Once again, communication is probably THE most important way to protect children and teens.
Many experts suggest parents learn to play the games with their children. This allows them to see first-hand what goes on in the games and on the various platforms and forums. It also is a great way to bond with children and get to know their world, especially if the parent isn’t a gamer.
There are also a number of practical things you can do. These include:
- Check out the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings of games. These grade games in four categories from games of everyone to those for mature users. This is a quick way to see if the game is appropriate for your child
- Approve all your children’s gaming and downloads
- If you don’t have it, consider purchasing software that can regularly scan for malware and other intrusions
- As in any online forum, never give away any personal information and be sure to vary usernames and passwords across different games, platforms and accounts.
- Set rules about how long your child may play, what types of games are appropriate, and who else may participate.
- Most important, if you See Something, Say Something. Parents and children should contact law enforcement immediately if they suspect abuse. The Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center offers a direct tip line on their website for those looking to report suspicious activity. You can also support a tip directly through the SafeOC.com website.
- The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also has a cybertip report where reports can be made and where victims can be referred for help.
Internet use, socializing and gaming can be immensely enjoyable ways to spend at least a few hours on a summer day. It just requires a few precautions, doses of common sense and some steady oversight.