According to research from the Entertainment Software Association, "the average US household owns at least one dedicated game console, PC or smartphone." Mobile is becoming a critical part of the game industry; the NPD Group reports that 63 percent of kids aged two to 17 use mobile devices to play. While online gaming can provide quality social interaction, there's a darker side. From cyberbullying to online predators to hidden costs, there are many concerns when it comes to playing video games online. The most important thing a parent can do is to establish a dialogue about safe online usage at a young age and build upon that as your children get older. When they understand the risks and the importance of security, it is much more likely that they will come to you with alarms or things that are worrying them.
Here's a list of the top seven dangers and simple tips to keep your kids safe online.
For many kids, the ability to escape into an online world offers relief from real life—no one knows who they are, what school they attend or what they look like. This anonymity cuts both ways, however. As noted by Get Safe Online, some players take advantage of their changeable identity to "grief" other players by deliberately making the game less enjoyable. This could include "kill stealing," which sees griefers killing needed quest monsters before players can get to them, or "chaining" groups of high-level monsters into low-level players and causing them to die.
In some cases, this griefing escalates to cyberbullying. Several forms are common, such as "whispering" players directly with hurtful and harmful messages, or spamming global chat channels with derogatory comments about their victims. According to Stay Safe Online, it's critical for kids and parents to understand their options. Most games allow players to "block" chat and messages from other users, and in some cases, the bully's words or actions may be a violation of the game's terms of service. It's always a good idea to write down or take a screenshot of any offensive conversation and report it to game administrators.
2. Privacy Problems
Stay Safe Online recommends that kids never create user names that are derivatives of their real names, or that might give away their location or age. According to US-CERT, the social nature of online gaming allows cybercriminals to manipulate conversations. They may single out your child in a general chat channel and then start sending personal messages that ask for detailed personal information. By piecing together data from games and other sources, hackers may be able to establish accounts in your child's name or gain access to existing accounts. Never give away any kind of personal information and make sure user names and passwords are different across different games and gaming sites.
3. Personal Information Left on Consoles and PCs
Another online gaming danger comes from consoles or PCs themselves. When they've outlived their usefulness, many families take these devices to the local electronics recycling center or sell them on swap sites. Users often forget to delete their files and personal information, in turn putting their financial and private lives at risk. You should wipe all personal data from games consoles, tablets and smartphones and then perform a factory reset. The specific tools or procedures needed might vary depending on the type of device, so it's important to research this for each device. Also, remember that some devices might include storage areas that aren't affected by the device's erase functions. If the device includes PC-compatible storage drives (e.g., SD cards), connect them to your PC and securely erase the data. For PCs, don't just rely on the "Delete" function or even formatting, since these will not actually remove data from the drive. Instead, you should use a program that removes data by overwriting the data multiple times.
4. Webcam Worries
As noted by Business Insider, more than 4,500 US webcams were hacked last year and streamed onto a Russian website. Any connected device—such as a webcam or audio device—could be controlled by attackers and used to exploit your children. To help mitigate this risk, make sure to scan your system for malware regularly, and ensure that your webcam's default setting is "off."
5. Online Predators
Online predators are typically older gamers who use video games to lure and groom younger victims. The end result may be inappropriate messages, webcam chats or even face-to-face meetings that could lead to sexual exploitation. According to Internet Safety 101, online gaming gives predators the chance to build a kind of shared online experience, in effect becoming the child's defender or teammate. After defeating a tough boss or exploring a new area in game, predators form a bond with younger gamers and build a set of common experiences that lead to more personal questions. In many cases, predators seek to turn kids against their parents and by taking up the mantle of the "only person who really understands them." Combating this problem means talking to your children about online risks, and monitoring their gameplay closely.
6. Hidden Fees
Some online games use the "freemium" model, which means they give you some content for free, however they require you to pay to access other portions of the game. As noted by Mashable, for example, Windows 10 users have to pay to play certain modes of classic games without being interrupted by ads. Or a player might use real money to buy a virtual sword or piece of armor, or rack up credit card charges to gain gold or experience for his or her characters. In most cases, these games require a credit card to sign up and start playing, and it's automatically charged if users decide to purchase new items or services. Never give out your card number for any freemium games. Even if your child is playing more traditional subscription-based games, it's a good idea to regularly check your credit card bills to make sure you're not being charged for purchases you didn't agree to make. If you allow your children to use your smartphone or tablet, you should seriously consider switching off "in-app updates," to prevent your children from racking up huge bills for in-app purchases without even realizing it.
Trojans may modify a legitimate app and upload the malicious version to Google Play or another legitimate marketplace. PC World reported a recent example of this: When downloaded, the Trojan would execute and was capable of taking control of a user's Android device and making it part of a larger "botnet." The malware operates on a delay timer, so victims won't suspect their online game as the source. The lesson here is to always be careful which apps you are downloading. Apps can seem legitimate, or masquerade as legitimate apps. So it's important to read reviews, research the developers and make sure any app is safe before downloading it onto your smartphone. And you should only download apps from reputable sources.
Make sure you're the one approving all mobile downloads, and take the time to install a reputable mobile anti-malware scanner so you can regularly check all devices in your home. Playing online isn't all fun and games—children are at risk from bullying, identity theft, credit card fraud and even sexual exploitation. Make sure to talk to your children about these risks.
Tweet: Playing online isn't all fun and games: children are at risk from bullying, identity theft, credit card fraud and even sexual exploitation. Tweet This!
Only by establishing a dialogue at an early age, will they be prepared to avoid these threats. Don't lose out—look for warning signs, understand the risks and take an active interest in your kids' online gaming habits.