Online gaming is very popular for social support and for a bit of escapism, and chances are, your child or someone you know is immersing themselves in gaming - an online fantasy world, sharpening their problem-solving skills through interactive puzzles, or engaging in competition with global peers for a sense of achievement. The gaming world offers a very large attack surface of opportunity, and while these platforms are exciting and educational, they also present unique challenges around cyber security.

Understanding The Risks

Online gaming poses several cyber security threats. Although the average age of a gamer in AU/NZ is around 35, there are still a significant amount of younger people taking part, and threats include exposure to inappropriate content, cyber bullying, privacy invasion, and risk of personal data theft. Malicious actors might pose as gamers to trick people into revealing sensitive information, share their location or use gaming platforms to distribute harmful malware. It is essential for everyone (and especially parents of younger gamers) to understand these risks, and how to mitigate them. Many of these gaming platforms are used to socialise, and not all users represent themselves accurately. With around 52% of kids playing with people they don’t know, the danger of influence is very real, especially when the child or young adult feels like they really belong, it can be an easy way to manipulate them.

Bullying is also a real danger. In a virtual world where your child might feel a lot more confident than in real life, bullying can turn their safe space into a place of anxiety.  

1. Set Up Parental Controls

If you’re a parent, any gaming consoles and platforms offer fairly robust parental control features. Some of the features you’ll want to use include, blocking unsuitable games based on age or content rating, and restricting access to in-game purchases. One thing to note is that kids who have grown up in a digital world are more likely to know how to get around these restrictions. They are still a good start but are not enough on their own. At its most benign, blocking in game purchases means no nasty surprises on the credit card bill. Non digital controls include limiting screen time – ensuring there is a signal or strategy to switch off at the end of the day and a discussion about what is a fair amount of game time in a day.

Games with disturbing content should be restricted. Violent content or those that contain sexual, or ‘gore’ visuals can still disturb children developmentally. Discuss why certain games are inappropriate and that these discussions can be ongoing as they get older.

2. Privacy Concerns

Most platforms allow users to control who can view their profile, game history, and online status. They also often include options to limit who can send friend requests or messages. Adjust these settings to protect yours or your child's privacy and shield them from potentially harmful interactions. Having access to a master account so that they cannot change the settings back themselves is an option on some platforms.

3. Understand the Game's Code of Conduct

Each online game has its own community with unique standards and conduct rules. Players should familiarise themselves with these guidelines. Look out for games with active moderators, as they can help enforce the rules and ban disruptive players. It's also worthwhile to report any inappropriate behaviour to these moderators. Checking on the age groups of the players is also best practice if you have younger children playing in the house. Of course, there will be some bad actors that lie about their age and still participate but this makes it more imperative to check and understand how to report any unseemly behaviour to moderators.  

4. Responsible Sharing

Privacy is usually not top of mind when playing a game, since it's a fairly social activity, but educating your children about the dangers of oversharing is a great foundation for safe game play. Understanding that game chats are not completely private, and it's not a great idea to share personal details such as their name, address, school, or other identifying information to strangers. Cyber criminals can do a lot by asking the child to ‘breadcrumb’ this information – it’s saved up in a dossier of sorts to use for manipulation or to locate them.

5. Keep Software Up to Date

Make sure your gaming console or computer has the latest security updates. These updates often contain important security patches that help protect against malware and cyber criminals gaining access to your network. Maybe a lesser-known patch is to update controllers and headsets if they are proprietary connections with something like an Xbox – check with the manufacturer or user guide if this is necessary. Keep an eye out for emails or ads offering free upgrades or free versions of popular games and make sure you vet the supplier, as these can be fake, and contain malware.  

6. Encourage Open Communication

Ensure your children feel comfortable talking to you about their gaming experiences, especially any unsettling interactions or content they come across. This allows you to take necessary action and provides an opportunity to discuss online safety again.

7. Teach Them About Phishing and Scams

Many cyber threats arise from deceptive practices like phishing and scams. Teach your children to be sceptical of 'too good to be true' offers, to avoid clicking on suspicious links, and to never download or install anything from untrustworthy sources – check that the link to the website offering the game is the official website for the game, and any offers of a free upgrade via email are scanned for SCAM.

Our responsibility extends beyond the physical world and into the online universe our children are exploring. Let’s equip them with the knowledge and tools to stay safe in the gaming world, this way we not only empower them to be responsible digital citizens, but also ensure their online gaming experiences are positive and secure.