Kids and Internet Safety: MMOs and Online Play

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Family Tech

Technology for parents & kids: Hints, tips, online safety strategies & more.

While online virtual worlds are an incredibly popular way to have fun with friends on the Internet in a seemingly trustworthy environment, the truth is that there are a number of potential concerns and dangers that parents and users of all ages should be aware of.

The European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA) reports that the biggest concerns for parents about virtual worlds for both kids (7 an under) and tweens (8 to 12) is online safety and exposure to online predators.

This is made possible due to the very social nature of these virtual worlds, which are essentially forms of social networks for kids with more of an emphasis on graphics than words.

Common Concerns

Going beyond general online safety fears, key concerns parents have about virtual worlds from the ENISA report include:

–          Exposure to harmful or illegal content, such as pornography or gambling

–          Interaction with ill-intentioned adults masquerading as children

–          Identity theft

–          Health issues related to spending too much time on computer and not enough time outside

–          Unauthorized spending

While these are all legitimate concerns, all reputable virtual world sites take steps to prevent misuse or abuse by users which parents should be aware of.

For starters, any service aimed at kids age 13 and under must be compliant with the U.S.’s stringent COPPA regulations, designed to protect the online privacy of minors.

The creators of these sites that are used by kids also offer many parental control options via a parental control panel, which also can generate usage reports and monitoring about not only how long kids are playing, but what types of activities they are participating in.

And because gamers in these virtual worlds are always connected online, the game’s developers can track and record every movement, interaction and purchase that gamers do while online.  Companies do this not necessarily with the player’s best interest in mind, but rather to be able to better tune and enhance their worlds based on how players are using them.  But for parents concerned about online safety, this practice is a nice consequence. 

It is definitely worth noting though that for those parents more concerned about online privacy that are lax to share ANY information about their children, obviously you’re giving up some anonymity by participating in virtual worlds, even if the data collected can’t be connected to your specific children.

A Bit More About Chat in Virtual Worlds

A key part of these online virtual worlds is also the chat function. There are many solutions available to help prevent unwanted and undesired contact from others.

There are two ways that chat can be moderated in virtual worlds.  The first is by controlling which other users players can interact with, and the second involves the types of communication they can engage in.

As a basic option, many virtual worlds offer “restricted chat.” This means that not only are users restricted to talking with others on their dual-approved friend list, but there are also limited, pre-written chat options for them to use.

Older kids may be allowed more chat freedom, but most virtual worlds still have a list of words they will not allow, as well as restrict interactions with others.

And nearly all have live, human moderators that are on hand roaming the world to watch out for any bad or questionable behavior, or who can immediately respond should you click the handy and usually prominent “report” button.

Other Tips for Keeping Kids Safe in Virtual Worlds

The US government has a website at OnGuardOnline.gov that offers many online safety tips, including those specific to virtual worlds.  Among the recommendations are for parents to check out online destinations themselves and engage in specific conversations about how and when they’ll be visiting these virtual worlds.

Parents can also look for third-party certifications on sites such as the TrustE online privacy Trustmark, the kidSAFE Seal or the FamilyFriendlyVideoGames.com Seal of Approval.  All of these indicate that the site has been checked out by a third-party for safety, privacy and other concerns.

While we looked at earlier at a basic introduction to online virtual worlds, next we’ll take a look at many of the key terms and details in our top 10 terms for online virtual worlds.

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About author

Johner Riehl

Johner Riehl is a freelance writer focusing on families, technology and online safety. As founder and editorial director for FamilyFriendlyApps.com and FamilyFriendlyVideoGames.com, sites that provide reviews and recommendations geared towards families, he examines hundreds of family-friendly games and apps every year. He’s also host of Parent Savers, a podcast aimed at helping parents of newborns, infants and toddlers. TWITTER: @FamilyTechDad

View all posts by Johner Riehl

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