Staying safe while gaming

Supporting children and young people with care experience

Gaming is a major part of children and young people’s lives today and those with experience of living in care are no exception. They provide children and young people with entertainment, relationship building, learning, and development opportunities. However, there are also risks to their safety, mental, and physical health to consider.

See insight and advice on how to encourage children and young people in care to make safer and smarter choices while gaming online.

What’s on the page

What you need to know

Interacting with others online through multi-player games has become an integral part of many children and young people’s lives including those with experience of living in care. Any game that has a sharing function or chats by voice or text function can expose children and young people to online harms such as cyberbullying, abuse, and exploitation.

For many children and young people, online gaming is a space to play and socialise. It can be used to maintain friendships and make new ones. It can be particularly important for children and young people who can find themselves more socially isolated from their peers due to their care experiences. Parents and carers need to be aware that groomers and abusers can use voice or text function in games to isolate gamers and break up their trusted relationships.

The Benefits

Online gaming kids to connect, create, and share with others online which brings a range of benefits which can support their wellbeing, including:

Gaining social skills

Playing, chatting, and co-operating with other players around the world which helps to develop social skills and digital citizenship.

Developing problem solving skills

Hand-eye coordination, listening, and problem-solving can improve.

Encouraging creativity

Tools are available to help children and young people develop their own games or modifications for existing games, enabling creativity and learning. These games can be sold online generating a small income.

Management of stress

The immersive nature of most games gives children and young people the opportunity to escape reality and enjoy downtime. In some cases, it can be used to help children to de-stress.

Finding a community of like-minded people

Gaming and special interest groups are useful ways for care-experienced children and young people to find both a voice and a community in which they can participate. Such groups allow children and young people to decide if they share their care status or not.

Resources document

See ‘The Benefits’ in our online gaming guide for more support

See guide

The Risks

What behaviours/risks should parents and carers watch out for when it comes to gaming online?

Taking risks is an important aspect of a child or young person’s development and should be supported. Risk-taking increases as children and young people get older. Protection from risk through total isolation does not prepare children and young people for adult life.

So, allowing risk-taking situations with oversight can help children and young people build their digital resilience and take ownership of decision making in a safer environment. Applying this concept to online gaming is important to encourage them to make safer choices while playing online.

Any child or young person from any background can be at risk of online harm, but some are more susceptible to it than others. Children and young people with care-experience may be more at risk or exhibit the following behaviours:

Online abuse

Online games often require ‘in-app’ purchases of items, such as weapons or ‘skins’, before progressing to higher levels. This can affect children and young people in care who have less access to funds and means of online payment. Groomers and predators can spot this limitation, either through the game not progressing or in chat, and will make the payment for, or offer gifts to the young person as part of the grooming process.

Groomers may encourage children and young people to talk to them through headphones to try and keep details of their conversation private and isolate the child or young person further. So it’s always recommended that if a child is talking to friends through apps such as Discord, it is done through speakers rather than a headset to stay on top of what is being shared.

If a child or young person was placed in care due to maltreatment and neglect they may be emotionally vulnerable and therefore more at risk of being groomed online or child sexual abuse.

Privacy concerns

  • The relative anonymity of gaming online can encourage children and young people to take risks and say or do things they may not do in the real world. Children and young people with care experience may have different social experiences and risk-taking perspectives to their peers, making this an important consideration for this group when online gaming.
  • Chat conversations can include contacts that would be ‘restricted’ on phones, such as birth family or strangers. It can be hard to find and follow contact with a birth parent for example as they may use a gamer ID rather than their name
  • Registering to play games will require an email address but a game ID is usually a username or ‘gamer tag’ which is specific to the platform (PlayStation or Xbox) or the individual game if playing on a PC, web browser, or mobile app.
  • It can also be easy for all children and young people to overshare information during chat sessions. For those with care experience, the impacts of sharing may have different connotations depending upon a number of factors. For example their care placement, personal histories, and relationship(s) with their birth family member(s) which may leave them vulnerable to being identified offline.
  • It’s important to highlight to children and young people that usernames and gamer tags should not include any identifiable information.

Inappropriate content

  • Many sites, online games, and apps are designed with reward systems to encourage frequent, regular use. These can lead to excessive use and even addiction, which can have a big impact on a child or young person’s wellbeing
  • Games are age and content rated but children and young people can access games by using a false date of birth if their account setup is unsupervised
  • Gamer communities featuring video and live streaming activity such as Twitch are not age-rated or restricted and a child or young person can easily watch inappropriate levels of behaviour and engage in unmoderated chats
  • Multiplayer games group individual players into teams, clans, or parties. Team members can be any age, including children, young people, and adults in the same game, and chat can be very adult-oriented with inappropriate language. The child or young person may not know the age or identity of the person or people, they are in the game with

Cyberbullying/Trolling

  • The chat section in games is another form of unmoderated communication between the child, young person, and their friends, family, and strangers which can be used for abuse and cyberbullying
  • A child or young person that is not so good at a game or has fewer ‘extras’ from in-app purchases can cause the team to fail which may lead to abuse, bullying, and exclusion from the group, affecting their mental health

Physical and mental health

Gambling

  • Loot boxes offer random, unspecified reward in return for payment. Players pay for the loot box before they know what it contains, and if results are not what they wanted they can be drawn into continuing to pay for more loot boxes to try to get the item they want. This is considered by many as a form of gambling and can lead young people into gambling in other online and offline activities

Cyber scams

Findings from our research found that children and young people in care are particularly susceptible to cyber scams.

This is particularly acute within gaming because with the growth of in-game purchases in free-to-play games, fraudsters are increasingly looking to infiltrate games or create scams to steal data and money from unsuspecting gamers. According to Action Fraud Between 1 April 2017 and 31 March 2018, Action Fraud received 35 reports of Fortnite related fraud, with a total loss of £5,119 – an average of £146 per victim.

In addition to cyber scams, children and young people with care experience are also more likely to be a victim of cyber aggression. This is typically when aggression happens between people online as a one-off or occasionally. At times it can be used as a way to bully or manipulate and intimidate others. An example of this could be if a child is playing with friends and they are ridiculed for being a “noob” or a griefer (a bad intentioned player) may intentionally target other players to deliberately irritate and harass them to win a game.

The areas of risk explained document

Content – Being exposed to inappropriate or harmful content which may include bullying and abuse, or harmful topics (e.g. pornography, self-harm, etc)

Contact – Meeting strangers and being involved in high-risk relationships online

Conduct – Where a child behaves in a way that contributes to risky content or contact or is the recipient of harmful conduct online

It is important to be aware that:

  • Modern games often rely on ‘team’ roles and players require online access to participate, whether through Xbox, PlayStation, or mobile devices. Teams communicate via the chat section of the game and comments can have both positive and negative effects on children and young people.
  • Children and young people tend to see no boundaries between their life online and their life offline and often become victims online, through someone who knows them offline and is aware of their ‘vulnerability’. In this way, the perpetrator has the knowledge to manipulate them especially if they are experiencing vulnerabilities.
  • Children and young people in your care may experience all forms of risk – content, contact, and conduct when gaming. Where their previous internet history and experiences have been unmanaged or unregulated, they may have already been exposed to these risks and see the activity as acceptable or as “banter”.

The Challenges

Harder to recognise ‘real friends’

Children and young people in care may look for players in online games to provide stable contact and interaction (good or bad) in place of physical interaction. They may have learned not to trust caregiving adults but can be won over by online contacts that do what they say they will do, give rewards, and say positive things.

Gaming includes watching live streams

Videos and live streams of gamer activity on sites like YouTube and Twitch show children and young people how to play games. They enjoy watching these players, who may be professionals, gaming at a higher level. If a child or young person is restricted from playing a game they will turn to these videos and live streams instead, partially negating the effect of not being allowed to play. Also as live streams may be unmoderated, they may be exposed to inappropriate language or content that could impact their wellbeing.

Sharing too much information

Children can also be tempted to ‘overshare’ information online, inadvertently or not, that can identify them, their status, or their carers. This may be through the content of their posts or images (school uniforms, homes, favourite scenes), the regular posting of their location, or through a choice of identifiers such as usernames and gamer tags.

Once in the game, it is common to use a screen name or gamer tag. For example, a username such as janedoe0904 may suggest their DOB as September 2004 making online identification simpler. It can be beneficial to disguise the username, though this may be telling a young person to be untruthful, so accompany this with an age-appropriate discussion around security, privacy, and data protection.

What things should you consider?

Parents and carers should look out for behaviour changes to determine if a child or young person is experiencing online harm (cyber scams, cyberbullying, sexting, online sexual abuse, online grooming, etc).

Here are some things to think about:

  • Has their behaviour changed?
  • Is their friendship group changing?
  • Be involved from as early as possible. Be positive about their online activity
  • Show and share good skills and behaviour in your own online activity
  • Talk early and often to encourage dialogue and make it natural
  • Ensure they have a good support network
  • Educate them on both risks and benefits of connections through gaming
  • Empower and support them to make their own choices and be there if it goes wrong
  • Get to know their previous gaming activity and history
  • If they use their email address when signing up to things, ensure they understand privacy and safety rules
  • Add internet activity and safety, including game playing, to their placement plan and care plan so that it is agreed by all involved with the child

Practical steps to protect them

Tools and advice to prevent the risk

Equipping yourself to safeguard children and young people requires a mix of communication and relationship skills and the capability to work at a technical level. Keeping up to date with the current digital landscape through your own training and research will help make your safeguarding more effective. In addition, having a good relationship with the child or young person is very important to ensure they are able to share any concerns they may have and seek and accept support when they need it.

It’s important to note that the presence of risk does not imply actual harm, but teamwork, bringing onboard everyone involved with your child or young person, and a positive, proactive approach to their online activity will create a good digital atmosphere, reducing the likelihood of them experiencing online harms.

Here is some advice on what you can do to minimise risk, mitigate harms, and develop an ethos of digital safeguarding for children and young people in your care.

Things you can do

Create a family agreement

  • Having the agreement of all involved with the child through the placement and care plans, family agreements etc. Family can be helpful if everyone’s role, expectations and sanctions for non-compliance are clear and consistently adhered to. They can be particularly beneficial where all the care groups around the child or young person agree with them and support them
  • Set up a family account and parental controls
  • Where possible use a Family Account such as those available on PlayStation and Xbox which can manage spending, access, and management of parental controls
  • Where it is not appropriate for a child or young person to have online access, then make sure to set devices up first and remember to remove online access once this is completed

Comply with Code of Practice

Understand and comply with your Fostering Service internet and social media guidelines or Code of Practice. Let your child know you have rules to follow too.

Apps guide

If you are looking for dedicated parental control devices that plug into the back of your router, there are a range of premium products that can offer enhanced levels of management for children’s devices and provide separate Wi-Fi service for them to use. Take a look at our Monitoring Apps guide for more advice.

Parental controls

Built-in parental controls are available on mobile and gaming devices, as well as in games themselves. However, these can be perceived as spying tools by children and young people and should be used in conjunction with other tools and ongoing age-appropriate dialogue.

  • If you are looking for dedicated parental control devices that plug into the back of your router, there are a range of premium products that can offer enhanced levels of management for children’s devices and provide separate Wi-Fi service for them to use. Take a look at our Monitoring Apps guide for more advice. Set up a family agreement to manage expectations of screen use in and out of the home
  • Connecting with the school and understanding their policies and procedures will enable discussion and use of similar approaches

Learn about games

Learning about the games from organisations such as Net Aware, Taming Gaming, Ask About Games and Common Sense Media will give a good insight into which games are appropriate for children or young people in your care.

If a child or a young person has experienced harmful content online, report it.

Involve their school

Connect with the school or education provider and understand their policies and procedures to enable discussion and use of similar approaches.

Conversations to have

Build up children and young people’s resilience to make safer and smarter choices online. Doing so by engaging in regular, open, bitesize, and relevant conversations with them about their lives online is one of the best ways to build and develop coping strategies. It also gives you an easier way to know when to support them.

Check-in with them

Ask open questions and listen in full to what they are saying without assuming anything or overreacting. Be non-judgemental. Some children and young people may expect that you will react badly to what they are saying so showing them that you can listen and respond calmly and supportively will be beneficial.

Ask them about who they engage with on online games and apps such as messaging and live streaming. Children and young people with care experience often respond positively to gifts such as posting lots of likes or hearts and cheats or ‘in-app purchases’ in games which generate trust. It can be difficult to explain to a child or young person that the gifter may have ulterior motives unless this is part of an ongoing dialogue around access and use.

Have ongoing conversations

Having ongoing conversations around privacy (not to give out personal information) and data privacy (what ‘free’ apps and games take from us in return) can limit risks but appropriate settings in parental controls can also help. Regular checking of game and app privacy settings is important.

Know the facts

  • Under data protection laws, from September 2020, service providers and app developers that monitor a child’s use and activity will have to comply with new design standards that inform users that they are being monitored and provide age-appropriate information and guidance. This can be a topic to provoke discussion and interaction that will benefit the young person’s understanding.
  • Learn about the games, their age ratings and content descriptors from sites such as PEGI and Common Sense Media.

It’s a good idea to let children and young people know that you are on their side and that if anything happens you can work together to resolve it. This will build trust and ensure they come to you if they do or see anything that upsets them.

Discuss screen time management

  • When face-to-face contact is restricted, contact over screens may be the best way for children and young people to maintain their peer relationships. Explaining the difference between ‘passive’ consumption i.e. video or TV, and ‘active’ consumption i.e. education, gaming, video calls, can lead to more balanced use. See our ‘Creating a balanced diet tips guide’ for more advice on this.
  • Even though the excessive use of screens may be hard to agree on with so much focus on the use of technology, try to agree to certain management and controls. Such as switching off Wi-Fi and handheld devices at the agreed time (one hour before bedtime is recommended) or allowing a certain number of hours per day. We would encourage you to establish patterns of activity. This could be setting a set time for gaming, ensuring they take regular breaks. It can be useful and give the child or young person a sense of control and involvement in their own self-care when online.
  • If they use screens at night, this can disturb their sleep cycles because of the blue light from screens tricking our brain into thinking it is still daylight, making it difficult to sleep. Ensure blue light filter settings on their device are switched on to reduce the impact on sleep.

Ask them about their digital life

Discuss their online activity to clarify how they are using a game or platform therefore helping you to manage any feedback or comments they receive.

Things to remember

Ensure that gaming activity is only a part of a balanced lifestyle and that children and young people can engage in non-digital activities.

Ensure they know who they are connecting with.

Involve them and empower them to make their own decisions within a supportive and nurturing environment.

Encourage them to have a good support network that they can turn to as needed.

Stimulate critical thinking to help them avoid inappropriate behaviour online.

Dealing with online issues

Here are some steps you can do (you will want to adapt it to fit with your knowledge of your child or young person):

What are the main issues?

Online grooming

For some children and young people, making friends online and chatting to strangers can offer a form of escapism or it can compensate for their offline reality.

At times even if you have had a conversation with your child or young person about not chatting to strangers online, they may still do it regardless to fulfil a need to expand their friendship groups to feel accepted and liked.

Predators may use online platforms like multiplayer video games and chat apps to make virtual connections and to build a trusting relationship with children and young people to abuse them. This could be by encouraging them to move off the main gaming platform and continue conversations on encrypted messaging platforms to further isolate them. They may also use webcams and live stream functions on the platforms to carry out the abuse or arrange to meet up face to face.

The goal of groomers is to mislead children into sharing sexually explicit photos and videos of themselves. They then use these as leverage to get more imagery from the child and at times it becomes increasingly graphic and violent. Read more about Sextortion

This abuse may happen online or they may arrange to meet them in person with the intention of abusing them.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) found the most common concerns raised of a sexual nature were online and peer-on-peer abuse. They highlighted the challenges of managing children’s online safety and peer relationships.

Coping strategies

Whether your child or young person is playing games with people they’ve never met or started a relationship with someone online, it’s important to take the following steps to keep them safe from online grooming.

  • Find out more about who this person is and the true nature of the relationship. Make it a point to check-in with them regularly about the platforms they use and the people they interact with on these platforms.
  • Where possible, encourage them to use devices, keep devices in shared family spaces so that anyone contacting them knows they are not alone. Ensure they understand why this could help keep them safe so they are more able to do it. Where they may feel the need for privacy, talk it out with them, and agree on what would best work for them.
  • Discuss what they should and shouldn’t share online (even if they trust that person).
  • Encourage them to keep their personal information private.
  • Talk about consent so they feel confident to say no if they are feeling pressured to do something, they are not comfortable with.
  • Avoid making them feel bad about seeking affection online but take the time to explain the safest way to explore their feelings.
  • Ensure they know where they can go for help if they get in trouble or are concerned
  • Review their privacy and security settings on apps/platform.
  • Teach them how to block and report anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. If you are at all concerned about contact with your child or young person then report it to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP).

Steps to take if your child or young person has shared an inappropriate picture/video of themselves to someone online:

  • Reassure them that you will work together to deal with it
  • Explore the facts – Who was the image shared with and was it passed on?
  • Contact the website provider – ask for the image to be removed from the platform
  • So You Got Naked Online resource for normal and SEND
  • Contact the CEOP if the image was sent to an adult as this is grooming

Where to go for support and advice

If you think your child is in immediate danger call 999.

Cyberbullying

Because of the interactive nature of video games, cyberbullying can be an issue that children face due to the nature of interactions.

Anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label found that 57% of the young people it surveyed had experienced bullying online when playing games.

In-game cyberbullying can take place when other players known as griefers target other players to purposely inflict abuse in order to win a game. This abuse can happen while playing on online gaming websites and social media, or while interacting through gaming consoles.

Coping strategies

If a child or young person is a victim of cyberbullying, they may find it hard to recognise it or to even tell you who is doing the bullying, so it’s important to:

Show them how they should respond

Encourage them to respond to any in-game abuse without aggression to avoid making the situation worse.

Tell them to challenge the behaviour and not the individual by saying for example “What you said really hurt / or upset me”.

Use tools to block and report abuse

If the abuse persists, make sure they can block and report the user on the platform. If they have a chat function enabled, it may be a good idea to mute or disable audio or text.

Tackle it offline

If they are being cyberbullied by someone they know offline, with the agreement of the child, you could ask them to address it face-to-face to ensure there is a resolution. If it’s someone at their school, there should be safeguarding measures in place that could help address the situation.

Get to know where they are gaming

It’s important to note that if a child is playing in environments where adults dominate, it may be considered acceptable to carry out certain behaviours so it’s important to be aware of the games they are playing.

Empower them to get to a resolution

Remind the child that they are not to blame for what is happening to them and that together you can resolve the situation. Ensure to make sure they do not isolate themselves from activities or friends depriving themselves of support systems they may rely on.

Where to go for support and advice

Privacy concerns & Oversharing

Children and young people in care may have a disjointed or fragmented social background that can make them over-reliant on social media to reconnect or seek out contact with their birth family. This can have an emotional impact on their wellbeing. Where contact with, for example, birth family members or previous carers is inappropriate, it’s important to help them manage their privacy settings on the social gaming platforms they use and advise them on what information not to share to stay safe.

Also in some cases, they may share posts and pictures that could easily identify where they go to school or what their daily routine is which could put them at risk.

Coping strategies

  • Switching off location settings and not sharing images that may reveal too much is key to reducing the risk of inappropriate contact
  • Not logging into mobile games at regular times such as to and from school
  • Making sure there are no identifying details in background images for cameras to pick up
  • Not using location or age data in gamer tags
  • Be a digital role model – be careful about what you share with others, including what you share with your child or young person. They may look to parents/carers as models of how to behave
  • Discuss what’s OK and isn’t OK to share – talk about what information is safe to post and what isn’t
  • Be clear and advise them to be careful when sharing information about family matters, health issues, sexual issues, or other people’s personal business with people online. Although it may be beneficial for them to share some things with support groups online, it’s important that they are aware of the potential risks
  • Talk about consequences – they need to know what’s at stake when they overshare. They can lose friends and cause people to feel embarrassed. Make sure your child understands that online posts can last forever

Where to go for support and advice

If you need something taken down from a particular social media site, you can go to Ditch the Label, who can report the content to social media sites for expedited removal. You can also use the Report Harmful Content online website to get support on any issue you’d like to report. Also, if the information was further shared by a peer or classmate of your child or young person, contacting their school will help to ensure this does not happen again.

Visit our Parental Controls hub which features how to disable location via certain apps.

Recommended resources

Here are some more resources to support children and young people. Visit the Inclusive Digital Safety resource centre for more expert resources.

A site you, children and young people can use to report harmful content.

A hub we created of advice to explain and understand the world of online gaming and encourage children to game safely and responsibly online

Resources for parents and carers who want to know more about gaming

Teen advice on where to go for support and guidance.

Ways to get in contact with Childlines counsellors.

Making the internet safer and more inclusive

Together with SWGfL we've created this hub to provide online safety advice and guidance to support parents & professionals working with children and young people experiencing vulnerabilities.

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