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Safe Gaming: What Parents Need to Know

6 suggestions for parents to promote safe, responsible gaming.

Key points

  • Parents should know how to use parental controls for communication, restrictions, time limits, and spending money.
  • Parents should be informed about the risks of gaming, including toxicity, predatory behaviors, and internet gaming disorder.
  • Parents can foster digital citizenship to encourage safe, appropriate, and respectful online behavior.

A recent study of American adolescents reported that 86 percent gamed, with 32.9 percent gaming about every day and 24.9 percent gaming about every week (Giordano et al., 2022). A substantial number of adolescents in the study also reported watching other people game; almost a quarter of participants said they watch others game about every day (Giordano et al., 2022).

Given the popularity of gaming among adolescents, parents are often left asking questions like “Is my child’s gaming a problem?” “How much is too much?” and “How do I keep them safe?” Below are important considerations and suggestions for parents of children or teens who game.

1. Do your homework on the game. All games are not created equal. Become informed about the nature of the specific game your child/teen wants to play. What is its rating (e.g., Everyone, Teen, Mature)? Be informed about violent content, sexual content, and foul language in the game. Check if players can interact with each other and if in-game purchases can be made.

2. Know how to use parental controls. Gaming companies have been working to address harassment, hostility, and safety issues. There are now many ways parents can control how their child games, such as managing communication between players, enforcing time limits, restricting access based on the rating of the game, and limiting or prohibiting spending money on the game.

Parents need to consider their options and make informed choices. For example, do you want your child to communicate with all other players? Only approved players? Or no communication with others at all? Do you want your child to be able to spend real currency in the game? If so, how much? How long do you want your child to game in one sitting?

3. Understand the risks of gaming, like player toxicity. Gaming is not all good or all bad; it has potential benefits and potential risks. It is important for parents to be aware of all of them to make informed decisions. For example, one potential risk in multiplayer online games is hostility or toxicity in player interactions.

When gamers are in high-stakes, competitive environments and masked behind an avatar, it is easy for communication to become aggressive and, at times, toxic. Toxic communication can include threats, bullying, sexual harassment, racist language, sexist language, demeaning language, and more.

In a study of gamers in Hungary, researchers found that 66 percent had been involved in a toxic encounter with other gamers in the previous year (Zsila et al., 2022). Moreover, scholars noted general and sexual harassment against female gamers (Fox & Tang, 2017) as well as the experience of online racism among gamers from marginalized racial groups (TaeHyuk Keum & Hearns, 2022).

Parents should consider the risk of harassment and toxicity when determining communication settings for their child and have a conversation about what to do if their child experiences aggressive or harmful communication from another player (e.g., report the player, mute the player, process the experience with supportive others).

4. Understand the risks of gaming, like predators. Another risk of online gaming or multiplayer gaming is the reality that some individuals enter virtual spaces with the intent to harm. Without creating undo fear, it is important for parents to help foster savvy among their children and teens. For example, parents can teach children about online masquerading, in which a person presents as someone they are not (e.g., an adult masquerading as a child).

If children/teens are able to communicate with those unknown to them in a game, they should be educated about the danger of giving out personal information, connecting with unknown gamers on other platforms (e.g., texting, social media), and the risk of sextortion (when a perpetrator forms an emotional connection with a minor, asks for a nude or semi-nude photo, and then blackmails the minor under threat of distributing the photo to others) (Patchin & Hinduja, 2020).

Have conversations with your children and teens about what to do if a gamer ever asks for personal information or if they feel like a gamer is crossing appropriate boundaries.

5. Understand the risks of gaming, like compulsive gaming. Gaming should be conceptualized on a continuum from recreational play to pathological play. Although most gamers play recreationally, a small subset of gamers may lose control over their gaming, continue despite negative consequences, game compulsively, and crave gaming when they are not engaging (these hallmarks are knowns as the 4 Cs of addiction (Giordano, 2021). Although internet gaming disorder is not recognized by the DSM-5, it is recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO, 2018) as a condition impacting a subset of gamers.

Parents should be able to recognize the signs of compulsive gaming, which involves more than the amount of time spent gaming. Instead, if a gamer neglects other relationships or responsibilities in order to game, experiences financial problems, foregoes personal hygiene or self-care, is mentally preoccupied with gaming, loses interest in other important activities or friendships, lies or deceives others about their gaming behaviors, unsuccessfully tries to cut back on their gaming activity, experiences extreme anger or agitation when not gaming, and/or uses gaming as their primary means of coping and changing how they feel (i.e., emotion regulation), they may have gaming compulsion. In these instances, a mental health professional should be contacted for an assessment and professional support.

6. Foster digital citizenship. Just as in other realms of life, children who game must be taught how to be good citizens, including digital citizenship. Ribble and Park (2019) defined digital citizenship as “the continuously developing norms of appropriate, responsible, and empowered technology use."

As important as it is to inform children about the risks of victimization in the gaming world is teaching them not to be perpetrators of harm, such as engaging in toxic interactions with other players, bullying others, masquerading or deceiving others, or perpetuating destructive norms in gaming culture. Educating children about digital citizenship includes teaching them how to engage in safe, ethical behaviors online and to be aware of the consequences of their online actions (Ribble & Park, 2019).

Parents can work with their children to foster empathy for others, develop personal virtues, and increase accountability for their behavior. For example, parents can game with their kids and have conversations about what transpires in the online world to help foster digital citizenship.

Gaming is a common pastime among youth, and parents do not have to feel unprepared or uninformed. Instead, parents can implement these six suggestions to promote safe, responsible gaming.

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Fox, J., & Tang, W. Y. (2017). Women’s experiences with general and sexual harassment in online video games: Rumination, organizational responsiveness, withdrawal, and coping strategies. New Media & Society, 19, 1290-1307.

Giordano, A. L. (2021). A clinical guide to treating behavioral addictions: Conceptualizations, assessments, and clinical strategies. Springer.

Giordano, A. L., Schmit, M. K., & McCall, J. (2022). Exploring adolescent social media and internet gaming addiction: The role of emotion regulation. Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling. Advanced Online Publication.

Patchin, J. W., & Hinduja, S. (2020b). Sextortion among adolescents: Results from a national survey of US youth. Sexual Abuse-A Journal of Research and Treatment, 32(1), 30-54.

Ribble, M., & Park, M. (2019). The digital citizenship handbook for school leaders. International Society for Technology in Education.

TaeHyuk Keum, B., & Hearns, M. (2022). Online gaming and racism: Impact on psychological distress among Black, Asian, and Latinx emerging adults. Games and Culture, 17(3), 445–460.

World Health Organization. (2018). International statistical classification of diseases and related health problems (11th Revision).

Zseila, A., Shabahang, R., Aruguete, M. S., & Orosz, G. (2022). Toxic behaviors in online multiplayer games: Prevalence, perception, risk factors of victimization, and psychological consequences. Aggressive Behaviors, 48, 356-364.

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