For many children growing up today, screen time is a normal part of their week, or even part of their daily activities. Whether played through a smartphone, PC, dedicated console or other device, people in the UK spend more time gaming than anywhere else in the world. 13% of children aged 8-11 and 17% of children aged 12-15 said they play online with people they’ve never met, according to Ofcom.
Being able to play with friends, family and other people online and interact with them through a chat feature is an ever increasing expectation and occurrence, with worldwide online gaming traffic expected to increase by a massive 79% in 2019. Worldwide, 1 in 3 internet users are children, and although the majority of the estimated 2.2 billion gamers are adults, a report by Ofcom showed that 53% of 3-4 year olds, 79% of 5-7 year olds, 94% of 8-11 year olds and 99% of 12-15 year olds spend a considerable amount of time online each week. Children spend lots of time online playing games. Can we keep them safe?
Children can be targeted online
Through online games which have become household names like Roblox and Minecraft, and popular platforms like Youtube and Twitch, perpetrators of child sexual exploitation have the means to target children through chat and private messaging features. These features can be disabled, and restrictions are available, but the number of reports of online grooming suggests that they are not accessible enough for parents to manage or robust enough to keep children safe. There have been 12,000 cases of online child grooming reported this year, and news of child victims of grooming, sexual abuse, and even murder after interactions through online gaming platforms demonstrates the importance of more awareness of, and involvement in children’s gaming behaviour.
Chat and private messaging features aren’t limited to the games mentioned here, many online games have these capabilities which can be used by perpetrators.
Keeping children safe
Adults (parents, guardians, teachers, older siblings) and children should be aware of the risks of using online games. Grooming can take place over several years, or result in online sexual abuse within minutes, and perpetrators do not always lie about their age as is commonly thought.
We should be equipped to manage safeguarding controls and restrictions on all devices and have ongoing age-appropriate conversations with children around how to play and be safer online.
Sometimes we don’t feel equipped to educate children about being safe online if we don’t understand how the different platforms work. One way to explore a game’s risks and safeguarding possibilities is to use it ourselves, we can play it with our children- or let them talk us through it- and then we can talk through the potential dangers in ways we think they’ll understand best.
It’s important that we reassure children of our trust in them, and be realistic about online safety without causing unnecessary distress. One child featured in the Children’s Commissioner’s report Life in ‘likes’, said:
“When it’s talked about at school it makes me feel scared, like during Safety Week. Because why else would they be talking about it with us? It’s intense to find out what they’re going to say, because if it’s bad then parents might ask us questions, so I kind of get the scared feeling when someone talks about it at school” Kieren, 10, Year 5.
The report also highlighted the need to continue developing conversations as children get older, reporting that Year 7 children ‘were also conscious of how to stay safe online, but they appeared to be more concerned about ensuring they ‘look good’ in the photos and videos they share than they were about hiding identifiable information’.
As children get older, their online gaming habits and social media use transforms and the conversations and education around online safety must too. New online tools hope to heighten safeguarding capabilities, but as children spend more time online, and the number of online gamers increases, the risk of children being targeted will remain.
Over the the last two years FACES have delivered our Breaking the Silence training within faith organisations across England. The training raised awareness of CSE, grooming, and the impact on survivors and their families; and brought recognition of a shared concern and compassion within and across our communities, and need for a proactive approach. To build on this we are developing further training to offer practical learning around online safety and communication that can be applied at home and in organisations working with young people. You can find out more about our work and how to get involved here and here.