1. Monitor Your Children's Online Activities
This is easily the most important advice we can give, but it's often the most ignored. We've all been there. We're playing a game of Call of Duty Multiplayer, playing well, and then it happens. Some kid starts screaming about your mother and the promiscuous nature of her relationship with this individual. We've all thought the same thing, "Do the parents even know their kid is doing this?" Chances are the answer is no. The child was given unfettered access to the console/computer and no monitors were put in place to ensure the child has a healthy online gaming life. For starters, the parents shouldn't put the game system in the kid's room. That is just a recipe for disaster, at least until the child is older or at least has enough maturity to not handle themselves in a way that would make Andrew Dice Clay blush. Instead, keep the console out in the open and all computers in family areas and whenever online play is taking place, no headsets. All chat audio goes through the TV when playing online until the child is old enough. We'll talk about muting in the next section, but that will also work for online games. Take time to show an interest in what your kid is playing. If you're not a gamer, take time to understand why video games are becoming the most popular form of media (and most profitable) and you'll find that they can be pretty fun to watch, even as a spectator. If you decide to try it out, buy a second controller and play with your child. There are some truly amazing co-op games on the market that both you and your child could have some fun playing!
2. Teach Your Kids How to Handle Cyber Bullies
If you have spent any amount of time online you have undoubtedly come across someone who appears to get great joy from inciting a response (often negative) from others. The internet culture is one that sometimes breeds a certain sense of boldness that you wouldn't normally see in everyday life thanks to the anonymous nature of interactions. More often than not, walking up to a person in public and saying you "violated their mother in a questionable manner" last night would be met with harsh, sometimes physical reaction. But due to online anonymity it often goes unpunished. Part of having a good time online is to first know the difference between people just saying offensive things and someone directing that speech towards you. Most online games are competitive in nature and it is somewhat par for the course to yell from frustration or triumph. If a player is just carpet F-Bombing, almost all games these days offer a quick and easy way to mute the player or whole lobby at once. The mute option is the first and greatest feature to protect you children online. If it really goes beyond that, online services like Xbox Live and Playstation Plus offer ways to report players for anything from excessive poor language and abuse to poor sportsmanship. If a player has been targeting your child directly or harassing them, even going as far as sending them messages, you can also report these people and easily block the player from ever contacting your child's user name again. Games and systems have sometimes gone far enough to take in account the reputation of a player when setting matches or more so people with clean records get to play with others of the same reputation while players with a bad rep get stuck in an all troll match. This all happens "behind the curtain" of these online systems, but it seems that companies are at least trying to match players based on online behavior.
3. Protect Personal Info
A proudly touted feature of this current generation of consoles was the integration of social media. Players can now link directly to various facebook or twitter accounts letting other players know way more than they actually should. Even if nothing is linked, players can still enter a bio of themselves to which they can reveal a location, age or name. This is all optional. Parents allowing their kids to play online should verify that no information that could be used to help identify them goes onto their profile. This should include and not be limited to profile pictures and gamer tag or username.
4. Effectively Use Parental Controls
Parental controls have become a norm in the gaming industry, and you can rest assured that all gaming consoles have them, as well as software on the computer to handle this mechanic. Parental controls work by creating an account for your child on the console and entering specific limitations on their playtime and access. Only the password protected master account can access the parental controls, and these controls can range in severity. It's not realistic to think that kids will limit their own game time. Even under the safest, most family friendly gaming environments, kids will abuse their screen time. Screen time isn't bad, but physical activity and other non gaming related activities should be interspersed into their day, especially during summer months when it's hot outside and school is a distant memory. Time limits on gaming can be entered via the parental controls where the system will give warnings and eventually shut off when the time limit has been reached, thereby restricting any future interactions with the console until the master account logs in. You will also want to password protect everything on your console, including the ability to purchase games on the digital storefronts. I (Scott) had a not so pleasant time recently of calling up Sony to cancel a $99 preorder my toddler purchased on PSN thanks to his constant button mashing and my stored credit card that allowed purchases without a password prompt. Lesson learned.. (and shout out to Sony for understanding these things happen!)
5. Do Some Research
While all games are legally required to display the ESRB rating on it's packaging, the ESRB is often vague and cannot properly rate online play. This is where a parent should do the extra leg work and research what type of community exists for the online game your kid wants to play. We here at The Dadcade even try to help with articles covering this and a new feature (called "Can Your Kid Play It") where we break down if a game is appropriate or not for your kids age range. Most games have forums and various subreddits dedicated to the community where they can ask questions and talk about the game. These are great tools to get a sense of the people that use the online features of a game. If stalking forums isn't your thing, game streaming services such as Twitch.tv and YouTube Gaming can shed some light into the onling community that surrounds these games. But above any other methods of research one can do, we highly recommend playing the game first or at the very least, alongside your child to see what type of players are usually on and what interactions take place. Who knows, maybe you'll become a fan in the process.
6. Downloads/Installs Are Always Handled by Adults
This one is more directed at the parents of kids who play on the PC predominantly. Xbox, Nintendo, and Sony all have their own storefronts where passwords can protect downloads to the machine, but the internet, on the other hand, doesn't have one central regulated storefront. There are reputable places lime Steam and GOG.com, where you can rest assured the game you are downloading is safe and straight from the publisher, but other sites exists. Oftentimes, the search for mods or illegally obtained games for free will lead the child down a rabbit hole of unsafe sites and increasingly disastrous malware. In this day and age, virus software is a given on most PCs, so make sure you're using them effectively. Above that though, instill in your child the notion that all software has to be installed by an adult. Like their console counterparts, PCs have user accounts where limitations can be placed on activity. Block downloads, limit time, and monitor activity to ensure your child is not only playing safe, but being safe online. This transcends online gaming and covers online safety in general, so pay close attention to what your child is doing on the computer and limit their access until old enough.
Hopefully these six points will make you more comfortable in allowing your child to play games online. Playing games against people from across the world is an amazing feat, especially when we were younger, we had to track down friends from the neighborhood to play and if they were busy, it was all single player that night. If after reading these tips, you still don't feel comfortable with online play, that's OK. Gaming can be enjoyed locally with friends or via single player until the child is old enough to handle the stresses that can exist from online gaming. Only you know what your child can or cannot handle, we can only give you tools to better make that decision. Regardless, pay attention to your child's gaming interests and be there for them when they have questions or concerns regarding their online play, they'll appreciate having someone to turn to when things go south online.