Parenting can be stressful, and new technologies can help relieve some of that stress. On the other hand, these technologies come with new threats. One goal of the OffenderWatch Initiative is to help the public understand and avoid the dangers that accompany rapid changes in technology. In this blog post, we will discuss how sexual predators utilize online games to target potential victims.
A Growing Market
The video game industry has seen massive growth in recent years, especially among children. Data reports from the Entertainment Software Association show the average age of gamers is getting lower each year. Their 2019 report also showed 70% of American families have a child who plays video games.
In our blog article from February, we discussed the wildly popular video game, Fortnite, and some strategies parents might use to ensure their children’s safety when playing it. Fortnite’s popularity among young gamers makes it an ideal app for sexual predators to target vulnerable individuals.
However, Fortnite is not the only app parents should watch out for. In a reality where most of our children’s free time is dominated by screens, and more children are able to connect to the internet from home, online gaming is only going to get more popular. As children spend more of their time playing online games, more predators will utilize online gaming as a direct line to their targets.
Why Video Games?
A common complaint about video games is they encourage violent behavior in children. While it is almost impossible to avoid video games themselves, it is easier to avoid the violent ones. By avoiding violent video games, parents might think they eliminate the risk posed by their children gaming. However, there is little evidence that video games contribute to serious violence.
A more relevant threat is posed by sexual predators using online games to groom their victims. Video games make it easy to conceal one’s identity, lie about one’s age, and even mask one’s voice. Of course, there is something threatening about being able to mask one’s identity so easily, but the true danger comes with being able to mask one’s intentions.
In other words, a video game can appear harmless and nonviolent on the surface, yet still provide a platform for predators to carry out acts of violence. Most video games, whether geared toward children or adults, feature a voice or text chat function. Moreover, a lot of those same games do not require any sort of registration. In the span of minutes, a predator can create a false account and connect with children from all over the world who may not be under supervision.
What Can We Do?
Of course, many of the dangers of online gaming reflect the dangers of the internet itself. For general tips on staying safe online, read our list of internet safety tips. An instantaneous global network of communication will naturally increase any given person’s exposure to potentially harmful people. It is therefore important to keep a few things in mind when navigating and teaching children how to navigate online games.
To parents living a hundred years ago, the idea of regulating “screen time” would sound ridiculous, but as this 2017 study shows, screens take-up of more of children’s free time than anything else. Parents are having to find better ways to regulate and monitor their children’s screen time and media consumption. Luckily, apps exist that can automatically track screen time and app usage, and lock users out of devices after a set amount of time.
Parents must also be attentive when their children are online. It is easy to provide a child with a video to watch or a game to play, but it should be a habit to periodically check a child’s activities and whether they are communicating with strangers. Basically, parents should treat online gaming as they would a public playground or crowded mall.
One of The OffenderWatch Initiative’s goals is to keep the public informed regarding sex offenders. Part of this goal requires parents to educate their children on safe practices both off- and online. Children will always have times with no adult supervision, and a child knowing what to do in those times could save both the child and the parents a lot of grief.