As we hit half-term (and with lessons from last week's Safer Internet Day in mind), I've been worrying or should I say thinking about setting some controls on our gaming devices at home.
Being a mum of two and someone who has worked in the video games industry for ten years, I can confidently say that parental controls are a Minecraft, I mean, minefield - even for me. Children have grownup intuitively knowing how to operate so many different devices - knowing what they are doing online and knowing that they are safe can be a real concern, especially with the media ever-pushing scare stories. Parents often feel ‘powerless’ and lack the confidence to even begin looking at control settings.
However that isn’t acceptable today when,
“According to the Internet Advertising Bureau, 99% of children in the UK aged eight to 15 play video games regularly. And they watch video game influencers on YouTube, Twitch and Instagram.” - Keith Stuart The Guardian.
Kids are not fazed by technology, and so it stands to reason that they’re not worried about living their lives online. It is however clear that video games safety is a blind spot for many parents and with that comes the associated risks and threats.
The likes of screen-time limits, age-appropriate gaming, spending limits and Loot Boxes are all potentially confusing issues. Familiarity and simplicity are key to building confidence amongst parents, so they feel empowered to make ongoing conversations a part of normal everyday family life. Quite often the family dynamic consists of children knowing these worlds better than their parents. This probably explains why in 2019, an NSPCC study found that only 19% of parents with children aged five to 15 use family controls on internet-connected devices, even though such controls have been a feature of console design for over a decade. These results were similar to those collected by Ipsos (Europe’s Video Games Industry) in 2018 which found 17% of parents found parental control tools too difficult to activate.
Thankfully there are organisations such as Ukie and the NSPCC that have numerous guides and articles on their websites that explain the real risks and settings needed to address them. They also encourage and educate parents on the importance of setting ground rules and cultivating honest regular conversations at home that promote safe play by thinking smarter, with self-policing as one aspect.
Aside from the gameplay settings, screen-time limits and monetisation considerations, it is essential to pay attention to age ratings. Not just the minimum age recommendation, but understanding what the ratings mean and why they have been categorised in that way. I believe it is important to consider them in reference to your own child as you would a PG-rated film. What is maybe ok for one child may be upsetting for another. Only us as parents know our children and the best way to find out what they are up to online and what the games they play entail is to pick up a controller and join in with them, if they’ll let you.
For example, a 12 year old playing cartoonish gunplay in Fortnite or Overwatch (both rated PEGI 12+) would probably be more acceptable to most parents than the realistic violence in Peaky Blinders (16+).
As an ongoing strategy, encouraging self-policing is a great way to support our children when we can’t always control everything they are exposed to - but more importantly, we should aim to keep the conversations going daily and create the conditions to empower our kids to speak up when they are worried or upset about something they have experienced online.
Parents and carers should report incidents to their internet service provider and in instances of sexual contact to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) using their report abuse button. According to research carried out by O2, the number one worry for parents – ahead of bullying, or academic success – is what their children are doing online. And to some extent, it’s with good reason; the NSPCC says that a third of children are victims of cyberbullying and one in four have experienced something upsetting on a social media site.
Personally as a parent, I want to give my children the freedom to experiment, and learn safe online behaviour. So some important questions I consider are:
1. How can I allow them to talk to their friends when playing multiplayer games whilst limiting their contact with strangers? As online conversations can often be essential to their social confidence, this is tricky to navigate.
Approving friends with parents of friends is one way to do this. Other parents recommend removing headphones from online play - allowing those in charge to hear exactly who the kids are talking to and what about.
2. How do I gauge what aspects of a game will be damaging to one of my children and not their sibling? One child could be emotionally mature enough to deal with concepts such as death and not another, not necessarily determined by age.
There are many websites that help with this - Taming Gaming is one, and worth looking at. Another solution is to play the games first. Nobody knows your child better than you - so you take charge and be the judge of what is and is not suitable.
3. How do I monitor their time spent online and gauge how much time is too much? Some children can become ‘addicted’ or isolated. For example, a recent report found that children who enjoyed the risk of simulated online gaming were more likely to gamble later on in life. Almost half a million children in England and Wales are gambling regularly, with an estimated 55,000 children aged 11 to 16 in the UK addicted to gambling (Gambling Commission 2018).
When considering screen time or online time, think about what it is they're doing with that time. Maths homework on the laptop is still screen time. So be mindful of not the when but the what.
4. How can I work with them to manage and control how much they spend on in-game purchases? New research by ISFE (Europe’s Video Games Industry) in the UK, France, Germany and Spain shows that around 2 in 5 parents of gaming children indicate that their child spends money in-game. The vast majority (8 in 10) of those parents have an agreement of some kind with the child, these consisted of:
• The child must ask for permission before each purchase (60% of respondents)
• Parents and children have agreed on a weekly or monthly spending limit (31%)
• Parents use parental control tools on the gaming device to monitor and limit spending (28%)
• Parents monitor spending via their credit card bills (25%)
• Spending is only possible with pre-paid value cards (20%)
• 2% of parents do not monitor their child's spending
One thing is clear that these questions need to evolve and expand over time, as do the rules and controls to set for your child and their devices as they develop and mature. If there isn’t open honest dialogue with your child where they feel trusted and respected, then they may find a way of gaining online access one way or another without you knowing about it.
I’d recommend being transparent and letting them know that you are deciding to trust them, but that if they start behaving secretively or showing signs of being worried that you will need to access their account or put in place additional controls. It isn’t a bad thing to implement some boundaries for the whole family to get the right balance between the time you all spend on and offline.
Having one place with all the steps you need to set safety limits whilst still allowing your kids a degree of freedom would make it all feel less daunting and confusing, wouldn't it? A great place to start is Ukie’s website AskAbout Games, which has information for parents on new titles. I have also listed some additional guides and device-specific information at the end of this blog.
And remember, however much of a technophobe you may be this is the world we now live in. You wouldn’t think twice about teaching your child to swim or to be wary of people acting strangely, so helping your child learn and navigate through their digital lived environment is not something to be avoided. As parents, we have to take control and be informed for their sake. Video games and online safety is only going to get more complex and develop at a rapid pace, so it’s better to take that first step today. I hope you find the resources below helpful and if you find yourself having more questions, please comment in the section below and we at Diva will do our best to help answer them.
Top tips for some of the most popular devices:
- Sony PlayStation (PS5, PS4, etc) have parental control settings that restrict the types of games that can be played and downloaded, as well as video content that can be viewed. Parental controls are usually found either on the home screen, or in the security settings.
- Nintendo Switch has various parental control options so that parents can restrict or monitor their children’s activities. The free Nintendo Switch Parental Controls app makes it easier to do so, even when you’re not at home. Even older Nintendo devices such as the Wii U and the 3DS have parental controls that can be set up to limit access to certain features which may not be suitable for the age of the child using the console.
- Microsoft Xbox (Series X|S, One, 360) lets you customise and manage access to games, films and television content. Parental controls allow you to restrict content such as games, films and TV shows, access to Xbox Live and how long a user can use the console on a daily or weekly basis. Parental controls can usually be found either on the home screen, or in the system or security settings.
- Google Play devices have parental controls to restrict the content you can download or purchase from Google Play on your device. By default, parental controls are turned off. To switch them on, open the Play Store app on your Android device, scroll down to the Parental Controls option, and access the settings option.
Useful Links for parents:
General parental controls:
Pre-school - https://www.internetmatters.org/advice/0-5/
6 - 10 year olds - https://www.internetmatters.org/advice/6-10/
11 - 13 year olds - https://www.internetmatters.org/advice/11-13/
Setting up devices:
Gaming consoles and devices - https://www.internetmatters.org/parental-controls/gaming-consoles/
Broadband and mobile networks - https://www.internetmatters.org/parental-controls/broadband-mobile/
Entertainment and search engines - https://www.internetmatters.org/parental-controls/entertainment-search-engines/
Android - https://gamfam.org.uk/wp-conte...
Google - https://gamfam.org.uk/wp-conte...
Nintendo Switch - https://gamfam.org.uk/wp-conte...
Xbox and Microsoft - https://gamfam.org.uk/wp-conte...
TikTok - https://www.openvieweducation....
General - https://www.taminggaming.com/
Top Tips - https://gamfam.org.uk/for-pare...