There is no single solution to the problem of cyberbullying and online harassment, but there are steps that you can take to help prevent it.
Talk with your child about their understanding of what cyberbullying is, and how it is different to bullying face to face. Young people can sometimes confuse bullying with ‘banter,’ especially online when physical clues such as tone of voice and facial expression can be missing. Ask your child how they would react if they, or someone they know, were targeted with unkind behaviour online. Reinforce the message to not reply, to save any evidence, and to talk to an adult they trust.
Playing video games online allows players to communicate, either via a headset or via a chat feature. Explain to your child that they do not have to use these features if they are receiving hurtful communications; games can still be played with others without using these features. Most games also allow you to mute, block and report hurtful players and comments.
Playing video games with others can also result in forms of harassment that are specific to gaming. For example, ‘griefing’ is when players disrupt and annoy other players on purpose. They may cheat, steal players’ in-game items, and ‘killing’ someone that is meant to be on your team. If players are doing this in a targeted way to one young person, it can be particularly upsetting for them. This kind of behaviour can usually be reported to administration teams, especially if it is persistent. However, it is worth discussing with your child stepping away from playing with specific people when it stops becoming fun.
For further information on cyberbullying, you can read more on Childnet’s Cyberbullying Hot Topic.
Remind your child that even if someone online seems friendly, it’s difficult to know how truthful they are being. In online gaming, avatars are often used (an icon or figure representing that person), which makes it particularly difficult to identify who someone truly is.
The nature of multiplayer games mean that many players could be in a single game together. Sometimes, to get the most out of a game, communication with other players is essential. This can make it unrealistic to enforce the rule of not interacting with strangers online.
Explore the privacy settings with your child on both their console and within the games that they play. These can differ greatly depending on what it is they are using, so it is important to really explore these and review them regularly. For example, it may be possible to disable private messaging.
Explain to your child that they should not accept friend requests from people that they do not know in person when gaming online, as you do not know who they truly are, how old they are, etc.
If your child wants to use a headset (which allows real time conversations using microphones and headphones), discuss their reasons and decide together whether you’re comfortable with this. If you decide they can use a headset, you could ask that they use it within your earshot so that you can be aware of the conversations that they are having.
Encourage your child to tell you if anything makes them uncomfortable or upset while using their games console, and make sure they know what to do if anyone they only know online asks to meet up, for photos or videos of them, or asks them where they live – to say no and speak to a trusted adult immediately.
The level of privacy settings available will differ between different online games, so take some time to explore the options available for each game with your child. For example, you can control who can access what information, images, and game data. You can also control who can send you friend requests (e.g. friends of friends, no one, etc.)
When creating a username, for a profile or within a game, work with or check in with your child to ensure it does not include any details that could link directly back to them. For example, it is advisable to not use their full name, any numbers relating to their age, or details that can link to where they live or go to school.
It is usually possible to link your gaming profile to a social media profile, such as Facebook. This may make your identity more visible to others, so your child should avoid doing this.
Although it is possible to limit a young person’s interaction with strangers when gaming online, it is very likely that they will come into contact with a stranger in some way. Remind your child that they should avoid accepting private messages from strangers. In any group chats, or if using a headset, they should not give away personal information, such as their full name, where they live or go to school, etc.
Video games are certified by PEGI, which shows what kind of game it is and how old you should be to play it. When purchasing these games from stores or online websites, this allows you to make informed choices about the kind of games your child plays. The higher the age rating, the more likely it is to contain inappropriate content. For example, in gaming terms, inappropriate content can include violence, bad language, fear (horror), sex, drugs, and discrimination.
For guidance on the suitability of specific video games, you can search for a title on the Common Sense Media website. It provides critical reviews and a breakdown of the game’s content which can help you decide whether it is appropriate for your child. It might also be a good idea to play a game yourself, or supervise early use of the game, to gain insight into its content.
It is also possible to download games directly onto the console using its online shop. Some games are even offered for free. Each console will have its own version of parental control settings, which can help you prevent your child downloading games that include inappropriate content. For example, Nintendo Switch has a Parental Controls app, to help you monitor what games they are playing, as well as their screen time. Explore the system settings on your child’s console to see what options are available. If you have children of differing ages using the same console, it is possible to create profiles for each child and tailor the parental controls.
For console-specific guidance on how to use parental control settings, you can look at the console’s specific website, the Ofcom website, or the Internet Matters guides on PlayStation 4, XBOX One and Nintendo Switch.
It is possible to spend money in many ways when using a games console, for example:
- Buying new games using the online shop
- Buying extra, downloadable content (often referred to as Gameplay DLC), which are add-ons to games that they already own.
- Buying ‘microtransactions’ and ‘loot boxes’ – virtual goods available in-game, such as new weapons, new outfits for their game character, etc. The items available in ‘loot boxes’ are seemingly random, which means that players do not know what items they are going to receive, which is why some see this as a form of underage gambling.
Each games console offers its own form of parental controls which allow you to control and monitor your child’s spending. On XBOX, you can set up a parent/child relationship between accounts and live approval of purchases. PlayStation allows parents to set monthly spending limits on a child’s account after an initial set-up. Nintendo Switch allows you to set restrictions on who can make Nintendo eShop purchases using the Nintendo Account settings. Explore the parental control settings of your child’s console so that you can best manage spending. The consoles’ own websites will be able to provide further detailed information about how to do this, or you can look at the Internet Matters guides for PlayStation 4, XBOX One and Nintendo Switch.
It is important to note that using online features on games consoles usually requires a subscription to that console’s online service, which will be a monthly direct debit payment or a one-off annual payment.
Discuss with your child the cost of games and additional content. You may want to set up a family agreement about how much they are able to spend each month.
As games consoles have evolved over time, video games are able to offer very enticing experiences for young people. For example, a video game might transport the player to the middle of ancient battle, or to a future with robots and alien creatures. This immersive experience can make them feel really involved in the story and allows them to switch off from their everyday lives. Also, there are lots of video games which encourage you to play competitively with many others, either in person or online. This means that a player can become very involved in the experiences on offer and end up playing on the console for many hours.
However, it is important to remember that there is no concrete evidence linking screen time to real harm. Video games can also be a valuable part of a child’s development: they can be a great way to develop skills and can be highly imaginative. Instead, it is good to balance time on a games console with other activities.
A family agreement can be a positive way to help your child manage their games console use. You could agree rules on when your child can play their games console and for how long. You may want to suggest that any homework or other important tasks are completed before they can use their games console. It might also be a good idea to set a time in the evening for the games console to be switched off so that they are not playing on it too late at night and not too close to their bedtime. It is possible, using parental controls on the games console, to control how long it can be played for.
Reassure your child you are there to listen and help. Ask about the problem and try to find out how it happened.
If you suspect that your child is or has been the subject of inappropriate sexual contact by another person you should report this to Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre at https://www.ceop.police.uk/safety-centre/
If your child has been involved in cyberbullying, talk through how they are feeling. Report (if possible) or block any unacceptable behaviour or other users. It is easy for players to remain anonymous or pretend to be someone else when playing online, so remind them that they can step away from playing with certain people once it is no longer a fun experience.
With any problem that happens on a games console, reassure your child they have done the right thing by telling you. Learn together from the experience and talk about how it could be avoided in the future. Explore the settings to see if you can do something to limit the risk of it happening again.
For further advice, see the following hot topics on gaming, screen time, cyberbullying, online grooming and digital wellbeing.