As the holiday season heats up and kids become excited for the newest and greatest games, apps and devices, it is incumbent on parents and adults to be alert and engaged.
Over the holidays, children and teens will be spending even more time in their electronic worlds and, in many cases, parents are either unaware or overly trusting of their children’s online activities and browsing — which can be a dangerous game.
For these reasons, groups like SafeOC have released a parental support section for parents to learn what to look out for while their children engage with online games and apps. This Parent Support page also provides parents with information and resources on how to combat the potential dangers of online gaming, apps and social media.
Gaming can be a great way for parents to connect and engage with their children during the holiday season and gain valuable insights into the world in which they live. The vast virtual landscapes of the internet that can be explored are unlike anything civilization has encountered. And with that comes all kinds of consequences – good and bad.
The issue of what children can stumble upon, even on seemingly benign sites, came to a head earlier this year when Kim Kardashian threatened to sue Roblox, an online gaming platform geared mostly for kids, for inappropriate content. The platform has come under scrutiny “based on continuing challenges with problematic content,” according to Common Sense Media.
While browsing on the site, Kardashian’s six-year-old son, Saint West, purportedly found an advertisement for an unreleased sex tape featuring his mother. The creator of the alleged ad was immediately banned from the site.
The child’s discovery was filmed and dramatized on the first episode of Kardashian’s new reality television show. This led to threats by the reality star to sue the game maker as well as speculation that the “discovery” was a made-for-TV moment. The reality of the Kardashian saga notwithstanding, the issues of child safety and privacy are very real.
Shopping season begins
With Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the holiday shopping season kicks into full swing. And shoppers and users will be subject to an increasing number of scams designed to ruin the holidays. For vulnerable users, like kids, there are even darker dangers where child predators, cyberbullies, and scammers lurk.
As Donna Rice Hughes, a noted internet children’s safety advocate and President and CEO of Enough Is Enough, says, “predators prey where kids play.”
However, according to Lance Larson, a cyber investigator and Laguna Beach police officer with 13 years of experience in cybercrimes and assigned to the Orange County Intelligence Assessment Center, through some very basic steps and with common sense, parents and minors can avoid common pitfalls.
“Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies,” Larson said, noting that people often don’t do the bare minimum suggested to be secure.
Larson said it’s well-known in cyber security circles that many products have pretty strong security features.
“What creates vulnerability is the human,” he said.
Once people take ownership of their online experiences and realize the control they exert as gatekeepers, the better their chance to thrive and enjoy the wonders of the virtual world.
While it is impossible to shield children from all that is out there, parents can take a very important first step by adding parental control features to all of the family’s electronic devices. This is a relatively inexpensive frontline defense that can be easily implemented and eliminates a sea of troubles.
Experts say parental controls have never been more important. An entire industry has grown designed not only to protect kids but give parents the means to ward off those who might harm minors.
Through parental control products for Android and iOS devices, parents can easily monitor a child’s online activity through web filtering, location tracking, and app management and blocking. Most products contain a fairly robust array of tools that give parents better oversight of their kids.
Attributes parents will want to consider are controls that allow them to track a child’s online activity and history. They may also want to track a device’s physical location. Most can set time allowances, block apps on their children’s devices, and screen a child’s social media content on sites such as Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. Most social media platforms also have built-in features to filter, block and report harmful content.
YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram all changed privacy settings for some teenage users to make their accounts or uploads private by default. Google also turned on SafeSearch for all users under 18, while TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat disabled direct messages between children and unknown adults.
However, parents should be aware children can still change many of these defaults, if they choose, and adults posing as children can still communicate with them.
Here are some other steps to take to ensure a child’s safety.
- Check out the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) ratings of games. These rate games in four categories from games for everyone to those for mature users.
- Approve all your children’s gaming and downloads.
- Use cybersecurity 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.
According to a 2022 Cyber Safety Insights Report prepared for Norton by the Harris Poll, “The majority of consumers agree it is important for parents to manage their children’s screen time use, and many feel that children are addicted to screens.”
However, despite this, 88 percent of U.S. consumers admit they rely too much on screens to keep their children busy and 89 percent worry their children are addicted to devices. In the U.S. 75 percent of adults say they monitor their children’s use, and about two thirds of parents globally fear their children have made suspicious contacts without permission.
Always remember, if you See Something, Say Something. Parents and children should contact law enforcement immediately if they suspect criminal activity. Many local police agencies now have units and Cyber Liaison Officers specifically trained in cybercrime issues. In fact, cadets in many local law enforcement academies include cybercrime training as part of their basic curriculum. Orange County residents can submit tips directly to the Orange County Intelligence Assessment center through the SafeOC.com website.
Dangers of gaming
According to the Entertainment Software Association, 215.5 million Americans play video games. An estimated 77 percent of parents play video games with their children, according to the trade group’s 2022 Essential Facts About the Video Game Industry study, and 97 percent of all Americans now see the benefits of video games.
However, for all its benefits for entertainment, diversion and family bonding, there is a dark underbelly with which law enforcement continues to deal. From pedophiles to cyberbullies, from internet fraud to privacy violations, a host of dangers and dangerous people lurk in and around the online gaming community.
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 and to encourage them to engage with their children about what they are doing online and who they’re talking to.
“There is a dog-piling of terror in a primary space for youth to engage,” Constance Steinkuehler, a Belfer Fellow with the Anti Defamation League and Informatics Professor at UC Irvine, told Behind the Badge in 2021.
She says numerous social platforms for gamers have become homes for “toxicity and harassment,” that many children see and engage in with little regulation.
Here are some of the dangers that can lurk behind the fun of online games.
- Cyberbullying can be found across the internet, but in gaming where there are winners and losers, bullying can be particularly fierce. “Along with other risk factors, bullying can increase the risk for suicide-related behaviors. Furthermore, cyberbullying can be relentless, increasing the likelihood of anxiety and depression,” states gov, a website of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Predators and pedophiles on online game platforms have become serious enough for the FBI’s involvement. According to Internet Safety 101, predators often pose as fellow teens or youths to build trust and form bonds and shared online experience. Parents suspecting inappropriate interactions should contact law enforcement immediately if they suspect abuse. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has a cyber-tip report option where victims can be referred for help.
- Extremism hate and terrorist recruitment have found their way into gaming chat platforms and social media. According to the United Nations Office on Counter-Terrorism, terrorists have used gaming and social spaces to spread misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech.
- Thieves find prime ground to do more than take candy from babies. Crooks often single out children on general chats trying to gain information, even identities, that can be pieced together to create new accounts. Game makers are not immune, either, often using deceptive practices such as offering free play but later requiring a fee for added features and full game capability.
- Hackers have been breaking into webcams since they were first offered as peripherals and continue today with internal cameras and microphones. Both are vulnerable to being remotely controlled by attackers and used to exploit kids.
Nationally, lawmakers are coming around to understanding the importance of protecting children and teens online. In California, a privacy law has been passed that could have sweeping effects on how youths and teens use the internet. According to Pew Trusts, the new laws could, “fundamentally change how kids and teens use the internet.”
Although the law does not take effect until 2024, the legislation restricts internet companies that serve minors by requiring platforms to be designed with the “well-being” of a child in mind. The law also bars numerous data-collection practices. New York, Washington and West Virginia have considered similar bills and Congress is considering several bills as well.
Although federal law protects children’s privacy, the law only applies to children 12 years old and under. The new law would extend the age limit to 18 years old and under and includes service “likely to be accessed” by children.
Policymakers have intensified their scrutiny after a former Facebook product manager leaked internal documents that revealed new details about the platform’s negative impact on kids, according to Pew Trusts. The company’s own research showed that its Instagram app exacerbated suicidal ideation, eating disorders, and body image issues for teen girls.
According to a Washington Post review of the documents, “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”
Teach children well
At the end of the day, nothing beats the direct one-on-one approach. Parents need to engage with their kids and talk about safe online usage. This doesn’t have to be done in a confrontational or intrusive way. Observe the games they play, the online friends they make, and ask if you can play. This allows parents to see first-hand what goes on in the games and on the various platforms and forums. Make it a common interest to build upon that as children grow.
For many parents, that will require learning. While it may be time consuming and even confusing, consider the stakes.
“You have to be involved and build trust so your child comes to you,” says Kathy Hatem, Director of Communications and Partner Relations for Enough is Enough, a nonprofit that advocates for cyber safety for children. “Be aware, do your homework and be involved with your child.”