Video Game Online Strangers

The video games I played growing up were offline. If I wanted to play against someone else, I would have to take my console and large, heavy television to their house and fiddle with the network settings before we could play. It was exciting, but the complexity meant it was something for special occasions.

Today, children can play against hundreds of other people all over the world at the press of a button. This is exciting and beneficial for youngsters, not only in terms of the scope of experiences they can have, but also through the wide range of cultures and social settings of other players and in ongoing connections with more local friends.

The old divide between games and social media doesn’t exist like it used to. For children, video games are their social media, and their social media is increasingly like a game. Based on the Office of Communications (OFCOM) report ‘Children and parents: media use and attitudes’, most children will interact with an online stranger for the first time in a video game rather than through social media. The report also states that 37 per cent of 3-4-year-olds take part in online gaming, while only 1 per cent of them have social media profiles.

The frequency and reach of these online interactions should bring with them informed caution. Children interacting with others online don’t necessarily know who they are talking to. Even when they play online with known friends, there is the possibility for antisocial behaviour – directed from and towards your child.

Online video games are similar to playgrounds. Like a child’s willingness to play with other children they don’t know, it can be joyful to watch these games unfold. However, it’s important to realise that these playgrounds are harder to fence off from strangers. We can’t see who is entering through the gate as we can in real life, and if your child is playing on a tablet in another room, or wearing a gaming headset, we can’t hear what’s being said. This means that, particularly for young children, rather than sitting to one side, chatting with other parents and sipping a coffee as we do in real-world playgrounds, we need to be involved in the play and give specified limits for what they can and can’t do with the technology.

The parental and family settings of the device your child uses to play online need to be set up appropriately. From chatting via messages to speaking on a headset or sharing images and videos, there is a wide range of ways for players to communicate with each other. The settings on your device let you specify which of these means of communication are allowed and enable you to restrict more open interactions to just those friends they know in real life.

Fixing these settings with your child not only enables you to agree to the boundaries together but can also help you understand how each setting impacts the play. It’s important that this conversation includes what to do when things go wrong and something upsets your child or makes them feel uncomfortable. Online games generally offer advice to parents and provide clear reporting routes for unacceptable behaviour.

As we do when children are learning to use swings and roundabouts, being present as they start gaming online enables you to support their play and hone these settings for them over time. It also creates a context of understanding and a celebration of their gaming achievements that ensures an open dialogue as they get older and play more complex games. This is much easier if we can keep games in family spaces. Although this is hard to maintain with tablets and portable gaming devices, ensuring the main console and biggest screens are downstairs is a good way to keep online interactions more visible.

If your child uses headphones to communicate with other players in games, get them to unplug from time to time so you can hear what’s going on. It’s also a good idea to install the related smartphone app for the console and, with your child’s permission, log in to their account so you can see the gaming messages they get. Also be aware of other social media apps, such as Discord, that they may also use to communicate with other players.

Setting Up the Online Playground

As adults, we don’t always relish taking children to the playground or on days out to theme parks. There’s a lot of effort involved in getting them dressed for the day’s weather, travelling to the park, encouraging them to play, soothing tears when they fall over and remembering to pack enough lunch. We do it because we know children enjoy it and benefit from the experience, and once we are there it’s lovely to see them run off and play.

Getting online gaming right for your child can be just as much hard work but is equally rewarding.
Setting these things up with you child present creates a context for important conversations about appropriate online behaviour and what to do if someone or something upsets them. These are the key tasks you need to undertake before your child runs off to play online:
  • Set-up a separate game account for your child to have their own settings and boundaries
  • Specify on your child’s account the interactions they can engage with
  • Specify the content they can share and view from other users
  • Specify whether they can play with people from different consoles
  • Specify whether they can add friends to their list themselves or if this is something you do for them.

One common way to limit chatter from players you don’t know is to make an online group of your child’s friends in the console lobby area before starting the game. Then in the game they can mute other players and only communicate with people they know.


This article was first published in the Taming Gaming book.


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The information on this database is designed to support and complement the in-depth discussion and advice about video game "addiction", violence, spending and online safety in the Taming Gaming book. If you have any concerns or questions in these areas, email our editor who is quick to respond or can arrange for a one-to-one conversation.

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