A hugely popular online activity for children and adults, but what are the risks that youth can face when gaming? Explore this module to learn more.
Videogames and online gaming have become a regular leisure activity for many people. The ‘Key Facts from 2021’ report by Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE) found that 52% of European citizens aged between 6 and 64 play video games, with only 24% of video game players aged under 18 years of age. Data also suggests that there is a fairly equal gender split in youth gamers, with girls making up 48% of gamers aged 6-15 years old.
This deep dive will explore the risks that children and young people may face when gaming and key advice on how to support them to manage those risks.
Why do children and young people enjoy gaming?
Before diving into the risks that can be faced when gaming, it is important to recognise that playing video games can also provide a number of benefits to children and young people.
- Enhancing cognitive skills: Video games can improve cognitive skills such as problem-solving, spatial awareness, attention to detail, and decision-making. These skills can transfer to other areas of life, such as academic performance.
- Developing social skills: Multiplayer video games provide opportunities for young people to interact with others, collaborate and communicate to achieve a shared goal. This can develop teamwork, leadership and communication skills.
- Improving mental health: Video games can provide an outlet for stress and anxiety, which can improve overall mental health. Games can also improve mood, self-esteem, and promote a sense of accomplishment and mastery.
- Encouraging creativity: Some video games offer players the ability to create and design, which can stimulate creativity and inspire innovation.
- Providing educational value: Video games can offer educational value by teaching skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, history, geography, and even foreign languages.
What are the potential risks?
It should be noted that, with a broad range of genres and game types available, not all games carry the same risks. In addition, the age, developmental stage and experience of a child also play a role in determining risk.
Each of the following sections will focus on one of the 4Cs of risk; contact, content, conduct and contract. For general information about the 4Cs of online risk, please see the ‘Key online safety risks’ module.
Risks related to Contact
These risks, as suggested, involve contact with other users/players in an online game. These may be people known to a child or young person (such as a school friend or family member) or strangers they encounter for the first time. Many interactions are positive, but it is always the negative interactions that carry risk of harm.
- Contact with strangers – It is important to recognise that contact in a game with people you don’t know can carry risk, but isn’t always an unsafe experience. Increasingly, online games seek to match or group players together, particular in PvP (player versus player) games which take the form of matches or involve teams. This may lead some children to communicate with strangers in a game, even if they haven’t sought out this contact. In many cases, this communication may be positive in nature – focused on the game task and supportive. An important aspect of online communication for children to learn is that you can be friendly online, but you don’t have to be everyone’s friend.
- Cyberbullying – Just as in other online spaces, cyberbullying can take many different forms in online games. It can include name-calling, harassment, and exclusion from a group. Abusive and harassing behaviour can take the form of messages in the game’s chat, insults or threats delivered through live audio chat in-game, or through abusive behaviours in a game (for example, constantly targeting and killing the same player, or performing acts in-game that mimic offensive real-life actions). Want to know more about cyberbullying? Check out this deep dive module.
- Inappropriate contact – Young people may encounter other players who try to initiate inappropriate or sexual conversations, or request to share explicit images or sensitive personal information.
- Grooming - Online predators may use gaming platforms to build trust with young people, and then use that trust to exploit them for sexual purposes. A key strategy to make children aware of is the move from public to private chat – a potential abuser will always try to take chat private (either within the game, or to suggest chatting one-to-one on a different app) in order to keep the grooming from being spotted and reported by other players. A one-to-one chat between an adult and a child also creates a power imbalance that a predatory adult can leverage to exploit and manipulate a child.
- Online scams - Some players may try to deceive others with promises of virtual items, cheats, or prizes, but may actually be trying to steal personal information or money. A common example of this occurs on platforms such as Roblox, where players may offer to grant VIP status or gift free items to a child in exchange for their account password. Once a scammer has the password, they are able to lock the child out of their account, or transfer out items and currency to leave a child with nothing. You can learn more about online scams and other forms of cybercrime in this deep dive module.
Risks related to Content
According to PEGI (Pan European Gaming Information), the service which age-rates games in 38 European countries, 59.5% of games rated in 2021 were suitable for age 7 and under, with only 7.5% of games rated 18 (for adults only). While many games are aimed at a broad audience or directly to children, it is important to recognise that the average age of a European gamer is 31-years-old! Therefore, there is a healthy market for games that cater to this audience and may feature content and themes that are unsuitable for children.
This content could include:
- Violence - Many games with higher age ratings feature violent content that may be inappropriate or upsetting for young people. One longstanding concern about violence in videogames is whether it influences violent behaviour in the real world. While older research studies from the early 2000s suggested correlations between violent videogames and aggressive behaviour, more recent studies have suggested that aggressive behaviour in youth is not caused by or directly influenced by violent videogames; other factors play a greater role. In 2020, the American Psychological Association (APA) reaffirmed its position that linking video games to violence is ‘not scientifically sound’.
Image credits: Boredpanda.com
- Sexual content – Games rated PEGI-18 may contain explicit sexual content or nudity that is not suitable for younger players.
- Profanity - Some games may contain profanity or swearing that may cause offence.
- Drugs and alcohol – Games aimed at adults may depict the use of drugs and alcohol, which may not be appropriate for younger players.
- Gambling - Some games may contain gambling elements, such as loot boxes, which can be potentially addictive and may encourage real-world spending.
- Advertising – ‘Free to play’ mobile games rely on displaying adverts to generate revenue. While this is merely an annoyance for most youth gamers, there are rare cases of in-game advertising display products or themes that are not suitable for children (such as gambling or adult dating services).
In addition, games that permit user-generated content to be uploaded and played by other users (such as Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite) can also result in children seeing content or themes that are not age-appropriate. While most platforms have rules and tools in place to moderate this content, these are never 100% fool proof.
Pictured below are the content descriptor icons used by PEGI – they are displayed on physical game boxes and on many digital stores that sell games. They give an ‘at a glance’ view of what types of content a game contains, to empower parents/carers (and young people) to make informed choices around their choice of video games.
For this activity, the labels have been deliberately mixed up. Can you correctly match the content descriptor to the icon?
Risks related to Conduct
The previous risks featured have mainly focused on children and young people as targets or recipients. But it is important to remember that children can also be the perpetrators of behaviours that pose a risk to themselves or others, and that they have a responsibility to consider their actions when gaming online.
These conduct risks can include:
- Harassment or bullying - Young people may be harassed, bullied or targeted with hate speech by other players in online games. They may also use online games as a space to bully or harass other players. As most games allow a player to assume the role of a character or custom avatar, this permits a certain degree of anonymity that may embolden a young person to mistreat others.
- Cheating - Some players may engage in cheating or hacking in games, which can negatively affect the gaming experience of other players and can also lead to punishment or consequences. Young people with advanced technical skills may seek to use hacks or custom programs to gain an unfair advantage. If found out, they run the risk of being permanently banned from the game and losing their account, along with any items, currency or achievements.
- Sharing personal information – Young people may share details about their real identity, including contact details or location. For some children, this can place them at greater risk of being bullied, exploited or located in the offline world. ‘Doxing’ is a form of bullying where someone discloses sensitive personal details about another person. This behaviour can occur in games as a form of revenge. Although rare, there have been several news stories in the USA of disgruntled gamers losing a game and making a hoax call to law enforcement (such as suggesting an in-progress shooting or terrorist activity) to direct them to the real-world address of the player who beat them.
- Inappropriate behaviour - Some online games have a reputation for being places where offensive language and insults are commonplace. For some gamers, this is considered to be ‘banter’ that can disrupt the concentration of their opponents, but for many people it is simply considered inappropriate behaviour which can create an unpleasant and unsafe gaming environment.
- Reputational damage – For some gamers, their in-game persona is their primary online identity. As with other online identities, they may have built up a reputation or following. Negative actions or behaviours towards others could cause damage to this reputation, impacting on their enjoyment and success in a game.
Risks related to Contract
This final area of risks is related to the commercial aspects of online gaming that may impact on the safety, well-being and financial security of youth.
Risks in this area include:
- In-game purchases - Many online games offer the ability to make in-game purchases using real money. Children may be tempted to spend money on virtual items such as skins, weapons or power-ups, which can lead to excessive spending. If these purchases are made with a parent/carer’s credit card (or other payment method) then this can lead to financial losses that impact on both the child and their family.
- Scams and frauds - Players may be targeted by scams and frauds that offer fake in-game items or currency in exchange for real money. These scams can result in financial losses, and identity theft if account details are given to a scammer.
- Unfair practices - Some games may include ‘pay-to-win’ features that give an unfair advantage to players who spend money on the game, creating a disadvantage for those who cannot or choose not to spend money. Gamers who spend large amounts of money to gain an advantage are known as ‘whales’.
- Gambling – Games that offer purchases of loot boxes are widely considered to be akin to gambling. These loot boxes offer a random chance to obtain skins (outfits, characters or patterns), power ups or other items that enhance the game aesthetics or offer a competitive advantage in-game. However, as with other forms of gambling, the odds are stacked heavily against a player to obtain the rarest or most highly valued items. From a purely statistical perspective, a loot box offering a ‘less than 1%’ chance of giving a rare item could mean that, to guarantee obtaining that item, a player would have to buy and open a massive number of boxes (as the graphic below from the School of Social Networks explains)!A number of European countries such as Austria, Belgium, Spain and Finland already recognise, or plan to recognise loot boxes as a form of gambling that needs to be regulated. In some cases, loot boxes are banned in games not specifically aimed at over-18s.
- Addiction – Although cases are rare, online gaming addiction can lead to financial losses but also a significant impact on a young person’s health (including mental health) and wellbeing if gaming interferes with academic study, relationships with family and friends or affects behaviours around physical health (such as lack of exercise, overeating while gaming, forgetting to eat or keep up personal hygiene, etc.). In 2018, the World Health Organisation classified ‘gaming disorder’ as a mental health condition. However, the symptoms that categorise this condition are not fully agreed on, and this study from 2017 found that different research studies lacked consistency in how gaming addiction was identified.
- Persuasive design – Part of the reason why some players become addicted to online games or develop compulsive behaviours is down to the persuasive design techniques used in many games to encourage players to spend longer (and sometimes more money) in the game. These are sometimes termed as ‘dark patterns’ and this site highlights mobile games that may contain these traits, as well as games which don’t!
How can I support young people to enjoy online games positively and safely?
Although online gaming may be an activity that mostly happens outside your classroom, there are things you can do to support your students to safely enjoy all the opportunities that gaming has to offer:
- Discuss positive and healthy interactions – Take the time to talk regularly to your students about their interactions with others in games. Discussing what it means to be respectful, a good team player and a gracious winner/loser are all important traits that apply to all games and sports, online and offline.
- Discuss strangers, trust and personal information – Also take opportunities to explore with young people what trust online means to them – who can you trust, and how far? What personal information can you share in a game (hobbies/interests) and what should you not share (contact details, location, etc.)? What might a scammer want from you in an online game?
- Be mindful of emotions – As with other forms of artist expression, video games have to the potential to affect mood. While there is no clear evidence linking videogames to violence or to other negative behaviours, there is still the potential for gaming experiences to affect young people in ways that may harm their wellbeing, or the wellbeing of others. Look out for changes in behaviour in your students and follow your child protection procedures in school to report any concerns.
- Teach strategies for responding to risk – Helping children and young people know how to block/mute and report offensive users in different games is important, as is reminding them to always tell a trusted adult if they or another player are being subjected to bullying, harassment or hate speech.
- Explain age classifications – Help children to become familiar with the PEGI ratings and content descriptors so that they can make more informed choices about what they play. Encouraging them to play age-appropriate games can also help – if you are a gamer yourself, you may know of some brilliant age-appropriate games they could try. Don’t forget that over three quarters of videogames are suitable for age 12 and under, so there are many possibilities!
- Encourage a healthy balance – Help your students to consider ways to balance their gaming with other activities. Taking regular breaks and setting time limits/goals can help.
- Empower families – Encourage parents/carers and families in your school community to be engaged in their child’s online gaming so they can understand the risks and support their child to be safer. Sometimes the best way to be engaged is to dive in and play a game alongside a child – the Family Gaming Database is a great resource that encourages families to enjoy video games and board games together.
Further information and resources
Want to learn more about supporting young people to game positively and safely? These resources may be useful:
- Better Internet for Kids Resources – Educational resources from across the Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres. You can search for ‘gaming’, for resources in your language and for resources for different age groups.
- CO:RE Evidence Base – A database of publications and research on youth online experiences. Searching the database with ‘gaming’ allows you to browse and read relevant research related to this issue.
- Games in Schools 2023 MOOC – Running from April 17 2023 to May 31 2023, this MOOC helps teachers explore game-based learning in schools. You can enrol on the course at any point, including after the end date, to access all the course materials for free.
- School of Social Networks – This resource for primary-aged children, teachers and parents/carers provides information and advice on a range of online issues, including contract and commercial issues that may be faced in games, such as loot boxes. There are accompanying activities that teachers can use in the classroom and parents can use at home.
- PEGI – The official website of PEGI provides more information about age classification alongside advice for parents/carers.
- ISFE – Responsible Gameplay – ISFE’s website contains advice for parents/carers and other adults on how to support children to game responsibly and safely.