Online gaming safety guide

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. It provides 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.

What’s on the page

What you need to know

Interacting with others online through cross-platform games has become an integral part of many young people’s lives including children and young people in care. Any game that has a sharing function or chats by voice or text function can expose children and young people to the potential risk of cyberbullying, abuse, and exploitation. As Friendships can be harder to maintain for those in care, online gaming has become the new playground for children to maintain friendships and make new ones. It’s important to note that Groomers and abusers can use these functions on 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:

  • Online games can involve playing, chatting, and co-operating with other players around the world which helps to develop social skills and awareness
  • Hand-eye coordination, listening, and problem-solving can improve
  • Tools are available to help children and young people develop their own games or modifications for existing games, which stimulates creativity and learning. These games can be sold online generating small income
  • Immersive nature of most games gives children the opportunity to escape reality and enjoy downtime and, in some cases, can be used to manage moods
  • Gaming and special interest groups are useful ways for children and young people in care to find both a voice and a community in which they can participate, without needing to identify their care status
Resource document

See Hopes & Stream survey from LGfL – 40,000 pupils share what really goes on behind closed screens

The Risks

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

Taking risks is a natural aspect of a child’s development and should be supported. Risk-taking increases as children get older. Protection from risk through total isolation does not prepare children and young people for adult life. So, allowing risk-taking situations but oversight can help children build resilience and take ownership of decision making in a safer environment. Applying this concept to their gameplay is important to help them make safer choices while gaming 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 in care may be more at risk or exhibit the following behaviours:

Online abuse

  • Online games 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 to talk to them through headphones to try and keep details of their conversation private and isolate the child 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 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

  • Children and young people in care may have poor social skills and the (relative) anonymity and separation when gaming online can encourage them to take risks and say or do things they might not do outside the game
  • Chat conversations can include contacts which would be ‘restricted’ on phones, such as birth family or strangers, and can be hard to find and follow such as contact with a birth parent, for example, may use a gamer ID rather than their name
  • Registering to play games will require an email address but in-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 children to overshare information during chat sessions, including with birth parents, and leave themselves vulnerable to being discovered offline
  • It’s important to highlight to children 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
  • Graphic content of 18+ games can be re-traumatising for those in care who may have themselves experienced traumatic early years
  • Gamer communities featuring video and live streaming activity are not age rated or restricted and a child can easily watch inappropriate levels of behaviour and engage in unmoderated chat
  • Multiplayer games group individual players into teams, clans, or parties. Team members can be any age, including children 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-game with
  • Purchases made in the app may change the game into one with a higher age rating and this may not be picked up by parental controls, or carers

Cyberbullying/Trolling

  • The chat section in games is another form of unmoderated communication between the young person and their friends, family and strangers which can be used for abuse and cyberbullying
  • A young player that is not so good at the 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

  • Games require a narrow focus of attention and children and young people fully immerse themselves in the game. Extended periods of gaming may have negative effects on both 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 may be considered 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
  • There is a significant relationship between children and young people in care experiencing cyber scams and being a victim of cyber aggression, suggesting that if they report a cyber scam risk, they should be questioned about experiences of bullying and online aggression. Equally, if they report online aggression, support should include addressing cyber scams with them

Children and young people in your care may experience all forms of risk – content, contact, and conduct when browsing. Particularly if their social and emotional skill set is limited. 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.

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 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 their target especially if they are experiencing vulnerabilities

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, 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 the sanction.

Sharing too much information
Children can also be tempted to ‘overshare’ information (inadvertently or not) online 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 the 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 should be accompanied by age-appropriate discussion around security, privacy, and data protection.

What things should you consider?

Foster 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, revenge porn, 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
Resource document

See Hopes & Stream survey from LGfL – 40,000 pupils share what really goes on behind closed screens

Practical steps to protect them

Tools and advice to prevent the risk

Equipping yourself to safeguard 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 make your safeguarding more effective.

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

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

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.

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 t set devices up first and remember to remove online access once this is completed

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.

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 kids 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 in care 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 young person that the gifter may have ulterior motives unless this is part of an ongoing dialogue around access and use. Strangers in chat rooms and games are still strangers, no matter how much contact there is.

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.

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.

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.

Even though the excessive use of screens may be hard to agree on with so much focus on the use of technology due to pandemic issues, try to agree to certain management and controls. Such as switching off Wi-Fi and handheld devices at the prescribed time (one hour before bedtime is recommended) or allowing a certain number of hours per day. Establishing patterns of activity such as 20 minutes screen time (about the length of a Fortnite: Battle Royale match) followed by looking for at least 20 seconds at something at least 20 metres away. 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, ensure blue light filter settings is switched as it’s less harmful than the normal screen brightness.

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, Common Sense Media or Net Aware.

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 based on support, education/training.

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?

Privacy concerns

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 birth family members 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.

Coping strategies

  • Switching off location settings and not sharing images that may reveal too much is key to reducing the risk of inappropriate contact and predators
  • 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

Where to go for support and advice

Oversharing

Children and young people in care often ‘overshare’ information (inadvertently or not) online that can identify them, their location, status or their carers. This may be through the content of posts or images (school uniforms, homes, their favourite places), the regular posting of comments or images (such as daily when leaving school) or through a choice of identifiers such as usernames and gamer tags.

Based on these identifiers, birth families can arrange unplanned contact. Groomers can use this information to befriend the young person and support the grooming process.

Coping strategies

  • 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: No talking about family matters, health issues, sexual issues, or other people’s personal business
  • 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.

Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying can also take the form of an exploitative relationship which is usually done by someone your child or young person knows very well. It relies on a person knowing to target your child’s triggers to bait them into doing something or getting angry or upset for their entertainment.

Sometimes it can also be based on a conditional relationship that involves a person making your child or young person believe they have a close relationship – to demand things from them at times in secret. Therefore, it’s important to think about their emotional needs rather than simply enforcing rules.

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:

Know who they relate to online
Think about why your child or young person might be continuing a relationship with someone that is toxic (as it may be fulfilling a need to be considered part of a group).

To help them recognise that a relationship is wrong, explain why it can put them at risk. Discuss what a healthy friendship looks like, so they have a reference point. Set up a closed friendship group on social media and encourage foster/adoptive family members and genuine friends to ‘like’ and comment on their posts.

Where to go for support and advice

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’ve 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 to build a trusting relationship with children and young people to abuse them. This abuse may happen online or they may arrange to meet them in person with the intention of abusing them.

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
  • If possible, keep devices in shared family spaces so that anyone contacting them knows they are not alone
  • 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
  • Don’t make 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)
  • In some circumstances, you may need to save a copy of the abuse, storing it away in a secure file before deleting – as you may need evidence of this to the authorities and/or police

Where to go for support and advice

  • Contact the CEOP if the image was sent to an adult as this is grooming
  • Childline – 0800 1111
  • NSPCC adult helpline: 0808 800 5000

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

Online sexual abuse

Any child or young person, from any background, can be at risk of sexual abuse online. But some are more vulnerable than others. 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

  • Reassure your child or young person it’s not their fault – they are probably feeling just as scared and worried as you. Let them know that your main concern is that they are safe and that you want to help them. Children and young people often worry about the ‘stigma’ of having been abused. Avoid treating your child or young personas if they are different in any way because of it
  • Having calm and open conversations – explore what is happening in an honest and supportive way. Bear in mind that children and young people who have been abused will find it difficult to talk about it
  • Avoid questions that might be felt to be intrusive or pressurising – instead, focus on understanding how they are feeling now and what they might like from you
  • Has the abuse stopped? – Often abuse continues even after a child or young person has told someone about it)
  • Work with the rest of the team around the child or young person to develop the self-esteem and self-worth, relationship skills, social skills, and resilience
  • In some circumstances, you may need to save a copy of the abuse, storing it away in a secure file before deleting – as you may need evidence of this to the authorities and/or police

Where to go for support and advice

Report it! If you suspect a child or young person is a victim of online sexual abuse, report it immediately to CEOP or contact the police on 999, for the local police, 101.
You can also report a problem by visiting our report issue page. Your child or young person’s social worker and supervising social worker.
Also, Marie Collins Foundation and PACE are resources to help if your child is a victim of online sexual abuse.

Online emotional abuse

Any child or young person, from any background, can be at risk of sexual abuse online. But some are more vulnerable than others. 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

  • Immediately block and delete the perpetrator
  • Don’t confront the alleged abuser
  • Explain what you’ll do next
  • Reassure your child or young person it’s not their fault – they are probably feeling just as scared and worried as you. Let them know that your main concern is that they are safe and that you want to help them. Children and young people often worry about the ‘stigma’ of having been abused. Avoid treating them as if they are different in any way because of it
  • Avoid questions that might be felt to be intrusive or pressurising – instead, focus on understanding how they are feeling now and what they might like from you
  • In some circumstances, you may need to save a copy of the abuse, storing it away in a secure file before deleting – as you may need evidence of this to the authorities and/or police

Where to go for support and advice

Report it! If you suspect your child or young person is a victim, report it immediately to the CEOP or contact the police. You can also report a problem by visiting our report issue page.
Alternatively, you can contact: Relate on 0300 003 0396. You can talk to Relate about your relationship, including issues around emotional abuse.
If you think your child is in immediate danger call 999.

Recommended resources

Supporting resources to share with children and young people

Guides & Resource centre

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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

Seeking support

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Childline helplines

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Making the internet safer and more inclusive

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

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