Staying safe while gaming

Supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)

To encourage children and young people with SEND, get the best out of their gameplay and reduce potential risks, use this advice on strategies you can use to ensure it has a positive impact on their wellbeing.

What’s on the page

What you need to know

As gaming has become more accessible through mobile gaming and the use of new technologies. Findings from our Parenting Generation Game report shows that 95% of children and young people (CYP) play video games on and offline.

Get advice on how online gaming can be different for CYP with SEND – and the benefits, risks, and challenges they face.

The Benefits

Gaming can help with socialising

Gaming gives CYP the opportunity to be known for being great at gaming – rather than being known for having a disability / additional needs. Interest in gaming can give them something to build an offline friendship around and talk about. This is especially important for CYP who may find learning neurotypical social skills more challenging.

Gaming can help manage moods

For some children playing a short game on their devices can give them an escape, a way to manage their emotions, and provide a bit of downtime for them to be less focused on potential issues that are causing them distress.

Gaming can help with motor skills

Most games involve developing fine motor skills to control the game. Other games, such as those involving a touchscreen can help people develop hand-eye coordination.

Gaming can develop creativity

Often children who enjoy gaming will do more than just play the game. They may also look to create their own games and characters allowing them to be creative and broaden their skills in a particular area. This could be by drawing characters or coding by creating their own games on a particular platform.

Gaming development can be a career

Gaming development can be a career. CYP may aspire to do so if they are keen on a career in gaming. AskAboutGames Thriving Futures: A Rough Guide to Game Careers gives good advice on what careers are.

The Risks

Talking to strangers

With the rise in popularity of multiplayer games like Fortnite, the social aspect of gaming has grown. Often games provide chat features for users to interact. In some cases these have safety features (like privacy settings, AI tracking, and human moderation) but at times children may use other apps alongside the game to communicate which don’t offer the same protections to keep them safe.

Also, our research reveals that children with vulnerabilities are twice as likely to experience contact with strangers and online trolling than those without vulnerabilities.

Physical impact

Gaming is designed to keep children engaged so it can be hard for children with SEND to stop playing especially if it fulfills a range of needs for them. Spending long periods playing without breaks can interfere with their wellbeing. If a child’s sleep, physical activity, learning, and socialising are being impacted negatively by their inability to stop gaming then there is cause for concern.

Increased screen time

Children can develop a passion for gaming and can spend many hours watching videos on how to play the game or watching live streams of others gamers playing. Sometimes these may contain inappropriate language or adult themes, particularly if they are playing games with an adult rating. They may also want to record and share their own game play which can have risks.

Risk of gambling

The use of loot boxes in games or in-game purchases where you cannot see what you are buying can be considered a form of gambling and can encourage young people to gamble. Gambling stimulates the brain’s reward system creating a thrill, so it’s important to set passwords or pins to restrict in-app purchases. Explaining what is free and what costs money in the games they play and where the boundaries are can also help them to make smarter choices.

Risk of addiction

Children with autism or ADHD spend twice as much time playing video games and are more likely to become addicted to them, the Mail Online reports.

Research has previously suggested that children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are at risk for problematic video game use, or so-called “video game addiction”.

Meeting up with strangers

It can be easy for children, particularly those with communications difficulties, to form strong bonds with people they play games with online especially if this is the main way that they socialise. There is the danger that they may make friends with someone who is a groomer or a catfish (lying about who they are), it can put them at great risk if they decide to meet up in the real world.

It is important to be aware that:

  • Certain difficulties or impairments can put children with SEND at a heightened risk of online abuse such as sexual abuse, coercion, online grooming, etc
  • CYP tend to see no boundaries between on or offline life 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 have SEND
  • Some online groomers used online gaming platforms and consoles such as Xbox and PlayStation to make contact with young boys
  • Children with SEND are more likely to experience all online risks compared to those without any difficulties
  • Out of the different types of risks, children with SEND are significantly more likely to experience contact risks online. Examples of this include sexting under pressure and coercion. They appear to be preyed upon and singled out
  • Children with communication difficulties are also more likely to experience contact risks. They are more likely to spend time in chat rooms than their non-vulnerable peers which can facilitate direct communication and are known for explicit sexual talk, innuendos, and obscene language
  • Experiencing contact risks is also associated with a greater risk of seeing harmful content and experiencing more aggressive behaviour from others online

The Challenges

Harder to spot online risks

Gaming can offer all CYP the ability to socialise, be creative, and build-up core skills. However, for those with additional learning needs, there is a need to give them extra support to spot potential online risks.

Use of personas

Many gamers use personas and so can make it harder for CYP to know who they are playing with and what their true intentions are. There are also ways that people interact on games that may impact their wellbeing such as the use of griefing (a type of bullying) used to win games.

Addictive game play patterns

Although there are no direct links between violent behaviour offline and video games it’s still important to know how video games affect CYP. CYP with Autism Spectrum Disorder tend to engage in restricted and repetitive behaviours. As a result, they might be at higher risk for developing addictive game play patterns. Be aware of the content in the games they play and using PEGI ratings to identify which games are age-appropriate is also key.

What things should you consider?

  • Combine controls with communication

While there are some risks associated with gaming, making use of the controls and settings available, combined with ongoing conversations and engagement, children and young people can safely enjoy all the experiences it offers.

  • Balancing online gaming with other activities

Agree ways that you can help them balance the importance of offline activities, family time, school work, and sleep versus playing games online. This will encourage them to think about what amount of time is healthy for them to stick to. Ensure your child takes a short break every hour they play.

  • Connecting with others 

Make full use of privacy settings to manage who your child can communicate and game with online. These controls aren’t a substitute for parental involvement, so it is important to keep talking to your child about who they are gaming with online and how to deal with anything that upsets them or makes them feel unsafe.

  • Stay engaged with their gameplay 

Make a habit of checking in with them on what games they are playing and what they are enjoying to know when to step in and offer your support. You may even play together as a family. Another simple way to do this is to encourage them to play games in a place where you can see and hear them so you can support them if there is a concern.

Practical steps to protect them

Tools and advice to prevent the risk

Things you can do

Online gaming for some young people is a form of escapism, and socialising while gaming can give young people with SEND a chance to build real-world friendships built from common ground on their likes and dislikes as well as building on their motor, cognitive and creative skills.

If they are already gaming online, use these tools and strategies to help them get the best of their online gaming experience and prevent potential risks.

Take an interest in the games they like to play

This will help you to get to grips with how they work and why they enjoy them. If you are familiar with the types of games they are playing you will be in a better position to support them.

Use PEGI ratings to choose games

Like movies, you can use age-ratings to check if a game is suitable for a child. PEGI ratings on games are essentially safety certification to provide parents with the advice of what the game may contain, i.e. bad language, discrimination, drugs, fear, gambling, sex, in-app purchases, and violence and based on this what age it is suitable for. All games in the app stores also have age ratings.

Agree on boundaries for gameplay

To help them develop good gaming habits, agree on a set of boundaries to help them have a clear understanding of who they can play with online, what games they can play and how long they’re allowed to play. Display these rules near the device they use to make it easier for them to become habitual.

Teach them how to protect themselves

Check that you both know how to use report and block functions on the game or platform they are using if they are concerned about something they’ve seen.

Use on platform safety features

Use on platform safety features. Most consoles and platforms now have safety features that you can apply to CYP’s accounts to manage screen time, access to chat features, and the games they can play.

Help Children Broaden Gaming Diet

Children often gravitate to play the same game every time they turn on their consoles. This might be because it’s what everyone else is playing or it’s a game they’ve seen played by YouTube and Twitch streamers. You can use resources like the Family Video Game Database to look up their favourite games and find suggestions for other games to play, often with a calmer, more imaginative and educational aspect.

Conversations to have

Ongoing conversations and engagement with young people is important as it means you can be kept up to date on what they’re doing, if you or they have any concerns and overall, to give you piece of mind.

Talk about sharing safely

To help them socialise safely while gaming talk about what is and isn’t safe to share. Explain that it is good to share what they are interested in but when it comes to personal details like their address and where they go to school it’s best to keep these private as not everyone online is who they say they are.

Discuss their understanding of themes in games

It’s important to talk about the tricky themes that are featured in games like violence, sex and gender representation, to make sure they have a real-world view when it comes to their understanding.

Discuss potential online risks

To prepare them for the online issues that they might face, talk to them on how they can deal with them, and what they can do if they get upset. Whether it’s telling a trusted adult if someone is being mean to them or if someone asked them to do something they feel uncomfortable with. It’s a good idea to equip them with simple coping strategies so they know where and how to seek support if they need it. For children who may find these hard to remember or understand, you can use our ‘Get help cards‘ to support them.

Dealing with online issues

To help identify if gameplay is having negative impact on children’s development, it’s important to consider the following questions:

  • Is my child physically healthy and sleeping enough?
  • Is my child connecting socially as usual with family and friends?
  • Is my child engaged with and progressing in line with expectations in school?
  • Is my child showing an interest in other activities?
  • Is my child continuing to have fun and enjoying gameplay?
  • Could they be a victim of online sexual abuse?

Create a space where children are able to create a healthy balance between playing games and their lives online are important to stop them from developing bad gaming habits.

What are the main issues?

Abuse online via gaming chat rooms

Any child, from any background, can be at risk of emotional abuse online. But some are more vulnerable than others. We are all aware of the worries about gaming: too much gaming, isolated young people not learning social skills, being lured into gambling or being harmed by groomers.

Coping strategies

  • Reassure your CYP 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. CYP often worry about the ‘stigma’ of having been abused. Avoid treating your CYP as 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 CYP who have been abused will find it very 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 definitely stopped? (Often abuse continues even after a CYP has told someone about it).

Where to go for support and advice

Report it! If you suspect a child is a victim of online sexual abuse, report it immediately to CEOP or contact the police. You can also report a problem by visiting our report issue page.

Gameplay and emotions

Often if a child is playing alone or for too long this can affect their mood. They may exhibit signs of frustration if forced to stop or even anger. It’s important to keep an eye on this to understand how best to manage these situations if it occurs but these things are not a sign of addiction on their own.

Playing with your child (or watching them play) is a good first step to better understanding their gaming mood. Looking up their games on resources like Family Video Game Database helps you better understand the experience from an adult’s perspective. Reflecting on the following questions can help you separate cause and effect and work out how to best guide them to better behaviour without blaming, limiting, or banning games.

  • Is it to relax after a busy day at school?
  • Is it to connect with friends?
  • Is it to escape other stresses in their life?
  • Is it to excel at something or gain social status?
  • Is it that they enjoy the sense of expertise?
  • Is someone telling them they’ll get rewards if they send any inappropriate photos?
Coping strategies

  • Encourage them to take a break when they are feeling frustrated
  • Based on their interests, point them towards calm games that can put them in a different state of mind
  • Be ready with an alternative suggestion for how they can fill their time when gameplay is over
  • Use tools on your game console or platform or automatic settings on the internet to set time limits and monitor what they play and for how long
  • Give them 5, 10, 15-minute warnings before you’ve agreed for them to stop to get them thinking about it and prepared
  • Check-in with them to see how they feel about their gameplay to discuss any concerns they may have

Cyberbullying and online hate

On certain games and platforms there may be times where users will use ‘toxic language’ to intimidate, ridicule, or frustrate other players to win the game or simply as an accepted part of the gameplay. These constant insults can affect children’s mental state so it’s important to show young people how to block and report any behaviour that is not acceptable and mean.

Taking time to read the community guidelines together so children are aware of what is not acceptable on the platform can help them to be better prepared to call out this behaviour if they see it. If they are taking part in this kind of behaviour to fit in or be part of the group, help them understand why it is not acceptable and that words can impact people’s feelings. Talk about what the consequences may be, e.g. getting banned from the platform.

Coping strategies

  • Encourage children to keep things positive online.
  • If they hear or see something offensive they should report it on the platform and to a trusted adult.
  • If they are frustrated with a player, encourage them to take a break and come back with a clear head.
  • Make sure they know to talk to a trusted adult about anything that upsets them online.

If your child is experiencing bullying within gameplay you can find out the steps you can take here.

Resource document

Take a look at our 10 things you need to know about Cyberbullying guide.

See guide

Online Grooming

It’s important to ensure your child understands what a good online friend is. You can use this activity to help “What is a good friend activity‘.
Many children game online with strangers, so it is really important that your child understands that not everybody is who they say they are and may hide behind fake profiles for dishonest reasons.

If you suspect that a child is developing unhealthy or worrying relationships with people online, it’s important to talk to them to get all the facts. Children in this situation may think that what they are doing is okay because this person is their ‘friend’.

Even if they are not in immediate danger, we would advise contacting the National Crime Agency CEOP Command who can investigate further and put the interest of the child first. It’s also important to report the user on the platform so action can be taken as well.

Coping strategies

  • Agree together how you will deal with friend requests and who they will play with online
  • Encourage children to questions people’s intentions and not accept everything they are told
  • Remind them that not everyone online is who they say they are
  • Use this video to help them understand how to talk to new people online
  • Make sure you talk about what information they should keep private and why
  • To explain the concepts of what is appropriate to share and what grooming is, you can use the NSPCC Pants video and Share Aware guide

Recommended resources

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

Help for parents and carers

CEOP – Report online grooming

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Anti-Bullying Alliance guide – Cyberbullying and SEN/disability

CSO – Chatting to strangers advice for parents

Online gaming advice hub

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Children and young people

Childline – Online gaming advice

 

 

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AutCraft – Whitelisted Minecraft server for children (and adults) that have autism and their families

CSO – Chatting to stranger advice guide for children and young people

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CSO – Online gaming guide for children and young people

 

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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 guidance to support parents & professionals working with children and young people experiencing vulnerabilities.

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