Online gaming – The risks 

Gaming is a fun and sociable way to spend time, encouraging teamwork and developing skills. All good stuff, but there are a few risks you need to be aware to help them stay safe and have positive gaming experience.

What’s on the page

What are the risks of online gaming?

Although there are some great benefits to online gaming for young people, it’s important to be aware of some of the risks that might impact their wellbeing.

Games can offer young people a sense of escape from the reality of the world and the social aspect of some games can help children feel part of a community. However, without the right guidance on what games to play or when to play, children can be exposed to certain risks such as in-game bullying, online grooming or in some extreme cases gaming addiction.

Below we’ve provided advice on some of the potential risks and things you can do to support young people on these issues to build their resilience and help them make safer choices while gaming.

Online Game Addiction

Our tech expert Andy Robertson speaks to BBC radio about gaming addiction

Recognising the signs

There has been a lot in the news recently about online gaming addiction. Many parents and carers worry that their children may be becoming addicted to their video game pastime.

This is not surprising. As with any hobby — football, chess, reading — those who enjoy playing video games for leisure will do so enthusiastically and deeply. This can lead to a desire from children to play for longer and more frequently. Of course, video games are designed to minimise the hurdles to repeat play and maximise enjoyment. This persuasive approach means it’s important for parents to guide children with screen time limits (available on consoles and smartphones) as they develop their own healthy boundaries.

Gaming addiction classified as disorder

These worries have been intensified with news that the World Health Organisation (WHO) adding “gaming” under the section that deals with ‘Disorders due to addictive behaviours’ (category 06) which also deals with alcohol, drugs, gambling. There has been strong disagreement among experts on the inclusion of video gaming in the ICD-11 list.

This criteria, when endorsed, aims to identify extreme cases of behaviour as addiction. The average child who plays a lot of games is not addicted. Only when their gaming is to the severe detriment of other parts of life, and they continue to pursue it in spite of this for 12 months does it start to fall into this diagnosis.

Also, it’s important to understand that the levels of dopamine that games create in the brain are only a tenth of those created by chemical substances that can be addictive. Changing behaviour is about helping children form new habits rather than a chemical withdrawal like substance abuse.

Related articles document

Parent story: What do you do if your child is addicted to online gaming?

What the expert say: What is ‘gaming addiction and how can you prevent children from developing it?

Advice to support children

Review what they are playing and how long for

It is a good idea for parents to understand how long their children play games and what games they are playing.

Apply time limits

Where gaming gets excessive, time limits can be a good short term measure to reset bad habits.

Encourage them to take breaks

Take regular breaks of at least five minutes every 45 – 60 minutes as a rule of thumb.

Review games they and time spent

Avoid only setting time limits and instead play games with children and help them find a range of activities to enjoy.

Seek support from GP if worried

If you are concerned about the health of someone who is playing games excessively then you should consult your GP.

Contact with strangers

Fixers short film encouraging young gamers to be aware of who they talk to online

Managing online interactions

Like many things in life, video games are much more fun when played with other people. Recently that has transitioned from playing with people in the same room to other people online.

Additionally, the numbers of people that can participate in a single game has greatly risen. The popularity of Fortnite stems in part from its inclusion of 100 strangers in the same fight to the death.

Growth of social networking in gaming

Also, the level and types of communication online games offer has evolved significantly over recent years. Whereas games were seen separately to social media, they now greatly overlap with online social sharing sites. In fact, most children’s first interaction with someone they don’t know online is now more likely to be in a video game like Roblox than anywhere else.

Use of personas to hide real identities

In these games, players do not necessarily know who they are playing with. Online personas in the games may report to be other children but it is hard to validate if this is the case. Because of this, parents and carers need to understand the games their children are playing and how to set them up safely.

Handled sensibly, playing with other children online can enrich a child’s enjoyment and also bring them into contact with others from around the world with different cultures and outlooks.

Related articles document

Advice from the London School of Economics: The importance of video game literacy for healthy parenting

Internet Matters expert advice: Managing online stranger danger and digital relationships with kids – a parent’s story

Advice to support children

Check settings on devices

When you first purchase a video game console, ensure you set up the online interaction settings in its Parental Controls or Family Settings.

Keep devices in shared family spaces

Keep consoles and computers in shared family spaces so you can see the interactions for yourself.

Play sound on speakers not headset

If your child uses a headset to play, ensure they play over the speakers occasionally so you can hear what is being said.

Turn on notifications on your account

Install the community applications for consoles like PlayStation and Xbox so you are notified of direct messages to your account.

Set up children's accounts

Set up separate accounts for children of different ages in your home to be able to tailor interactions.

Play together

Play the games together, using your child’s account to see who they are talking to.

Use settings to create groups of real friends to play with

On consoles, you can create a lobby of your child’s known friends before starting a game, and then mute other players to keep a safe but connection experience.

Online Gaming Health

Potential physical impact

Video games are perceived to be a sedentary hobby. However, many new games and technology actively encourage movement and motion. Whether this is getting the family out for walks with Pokemon Go! or jumping around the sitting room with Just Dance, games can actually be a great way to get the family moving.

Ensuring children take breaks and move around

There have been studies that suggest situations in which someone spends hours sitting in one place can increase the risk of a Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). But this can happen with any stationary leisure activity – including watching television, listening to music or reading a book.

Where children are playing games just on screens, it is good advice to ensure they take breaks every hour. Not only will this keep them moving but it offers a chance for a change of activity.

Another area for concern is with bright flashing lights that are often a part of video game experiences. The current research shows that video games don’t cause epilepsy but can (like television or pop concerts) trigger a seizure in the extremely small number of people, who already have Photosensitive Epilepsy.

The Consumer Safety Unit of the governmental department, together with the National Epilepsy Society, has carried out an exhaustive study into this area, which found that epilepsy cannot be caused by playing computer games

Related articles document

Advice from the Epilepsy Foundation on video game induced-seizures

Internet Matters expert article: Making screen time active with great apps

Advice to support children

Review child's gaming diet

Encourage your children to play a wide variety of online video games

Advise regular breaks

Ensure children take breaks every hour

Be aware of Photosensitive Epilepsy

Consider whether you have a history of Photosensitive Epilepsy in your family.

Play active games together

Introduce games you play together that include activity.

Symptoms to watch out for

If you experience symptoms such as light-headedness, altered vision, eye or face twitching it is recommended that you immediately stop playing and consult a doctor

Online Video Game Costs and Gambling

BBC – Parental advice on Gambling in Fortnite, FIFA Rocket League, Overwatch

Use of in-game and in-app purchases

Online video games require relatively complex hardware to participate in, along with a high-speed internet connection. This can create the perception that you need the most up to date technology for your child.

However, there are a wide range of ways that your child can play video games online without breaking the bank. Tablet devices and older smartphones are a good example of this. Even older models can offer a comprehensive way to enjoy video games online. Apps such as Roblox can offer children access to the game even on lower-end devices.

In-game and in-app purchases and freemium games

Other costs that parents should be aware of are those that crop up after the initial purchase or download of the game. An increasingly popular way to fund game development is to offer games for free but then charge for content or characters in the game – these are called freemium games. Fortnite is an example of a free game making a lot money from it’s in-game purchases that unlock new outfits and dances.

BBC Own it – Children explain what ‘loot boxes’ are to parents

Skin gambling [Betting] – What is it?

In some instances, these transactions (sometimes called Loot Boxes) offer a chance to win an in-game item of varying value to the player. This can appear similar to gambling as there is luck involved as to which item the player will get. Also, some games like Rocket League have historically presented these items in a “fruit machine” style, spin to win.

From a Gambling Commission perspective, this is not actually gambling because there is no monetary value of the items won outside the game. If it was considered gambling it could not be marketed to children.

This means that some countries, such as Belgium have outlawed the use of “loot boxes” in games because they are seen as gambling aimed at children. There is no consensus more widely available, though. In the UK and US, games are now labeled as having In-App purchases as part of the rating system.

An important distinction, that many articles conflate, is between online gaming and online video games. Online gaming usually refers to gambling websites where players can partake in traditional gambling games of cards, dice and slot machines. Online video games are the topic of this section, playing on consoles and PC to offer players a challenge of skill in a virtual world.

Children, who want more in-game currency to purchase loot boxes, are sometimes targeted but unofficial third-party apps offering this in exchange for information. It’s important that parents understand this, educate children, and ensure appropriate passwords are set on credit card details.

Risk of malware on free-to-download games

To avoid un-intentionally downloading apps or free games that may be bundled with malware or spyware it’s important to:

  • Check and research apps and games that children plan to download
  • Stick to legitimate websites when downloading any game
  • Explain risks of downloading ‘free’ games and what to do if something goes wrong
  • Set online boundaries and agree which websites and apps are best for them to use

More information

What are viruses and malware? See more advice from BBC

Visit site

Advice to support children

Review ongoing gaming costs

Consider the ongoing costs of playing a game before making a purchase or granting your child permission to download it.

Use parental controls

Set-up parental controls to limit access to any credit cards associated with online game accounts

Set up email on device to flag purchases

Set-up your device or console with an email account you check so that purchases are quickly flagged.

Use gift cards to make purchases rather than credit cards

Consider not associating your credit card with an account and instead, buying gift cards with pre-set credit, similar to book tokens.

Online Gaming Effects on Behaviour

An example of cyberbullying or griefing in online gaming

Tackling cyberbullying and online hate

Because of the interactive nature of video games, where players participate in the on-screen action, parents can worry that this will affect children’s behaviour. This is particularly true where younger players experience more violent games not necessarily designed for their age group.

No direct link between violent behaviour offline and video games

However, contrary to popular belief and many newspaper headlines following violent incidents involving teenagers, a direct link between video game violence and violent behaviour has not been found.

In their book, Moral Combat, Markey and Ferguson show that although the rise of video game sales to teenagers has risen steeply over the years there has been no correlating rise in violent crime. In fact, they suggest the reverse is true — that games can play a role in keeping teenagers off the streets and out of trouble.

Still, it is important that parents understand how video games affect their children. Parents may not be aware of the actual scenes their children will experience in games before playing them. It’s crucial, therefore, that parents use the PEGI ratings and related information that provides a detailed account of the violence, sex and language contained in a video game.

BBC Own It video aimed at young people explaining how to tackle hate in online gaming

Keeping it positive while gaming

Take a look at our Internet Manners guide to give your child tips on how to interact safely with others online.

See guide

Gaming advice by age