You’ve got Mario Kart on the Wii, Draw Something on the iPad and Nintendo DS in the car. And your kids love you for it. But while it may seem all fun and games, web-enabled gaming also carries some surprising, hidden dangers.
For a long time, the biggest concern facing parents was the content contained in the game itself. That’s why the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was created in 1994 to help parents know when to shield their kids from violence and mature content. Second to that, I think parents worried about the possibility of addiction and how screen time impacted the rest of the child’s time and development.
But these days, many digital games and gaming devices are web-enabled, which allows your kids to connect with the rest of the world in ways you wouldn’t expect. A big concern for me are the adult-themed ads that appear alongside gameplay in the free versions of many of these apps. But at least I can pay for the premium versions of these games, so my son isn’t subjected to inappropriate content. But there are many other worrisome aspects of online gaming that we cannot control.
For instance, did you know Words with Friends is just one of many gaming apps that come with a chat function? This means when the game pairs your child up with a random opponent, your child can communicate with the opponent—and vice versa.
But even without chat, playing with random opponents can quickly invite abuse. The freeform play that makes Draw Something so irresistible is also proving irresistible to those who like to draw and share pornographic images. You can actually find them boasting about it on the web.
Even Mario Kart on the Wii, with the loveable Mario Bros characters we’ve all grown up with, can get your kids into real trouble if played online.
While Nintendo does seem to have some filtering in place that prevents users from using adult-oriented words to name their Mii (a digital avatar used to identify Nintendo users), many find a way around this by creatively piecing together the many different fonts and character styles to create suggestive, derogatory or outright profane handles.
But much more worrisome are the users who name their Mii using Twitter handles and email addresses. Even though the online play is ostensibly anonymous, these handles allow the opponent to be contacted by your kids.
And while you’d like to think your kids know better than to reach out to a stranger, they might think of it as a chance to simply talk some smack the same way they might tease their friends on the basketball court—only these online opponents aren’t friends.
Many are in fact hackers who could use the IP address they obtain from your child’s email to attack your computer. Or they could be looking to lure your child in using other methods… and for other reasons.
These are just a couple of examples. The important thing to remember is just how widespread online gaming is. You may not realize the devices your kids are playing on are web-enabled. Your kids may not even recognize that they’re playing environment is in fact the Internet.
To protect your kids, play these games yourself. Look for all the ways a stranger might be able to get in touch with your child.
Are your kids using online handles that make them personally identifiable? Do they display any desire to get in touch with their opponents? Have you educated them on the dangers of doing so?
Image by Paul Mayne used under Creative commons license.