‘Tis the season for gaming: Keeping children safe (and parents sane)

Cyber Security

It’s all fun and games over the holidays, but is your young gamer safe from the darker side of the action?

As Christmas draws nearer, parents are handling a barrage of requests from their kids for the latest gaming titles and consoles. Despite gathering macro-economic headwinds, US consumers are set to increase their total retail spending by around 7% year-on-year this holiday season, and by 3.5% on electronics. But while several weeks of uninterrupted gaming might seem like the dream Christmas for many youngsters, there are also risks that parents need to be aware of.

Whether your children are playing a console in the living room, or accessing games via their mobile device or PC, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with some of the main threats. Take a look at the below and check out our advice to keep the holidays happy this year.

What are the main gaming risks?

There’s a reason why an estimated 68% of 6-10-year-olds and even more (79%) 11-14-year-olds play video games. It offers a healthy dose of escapism: a welcome relief from the stresses and strains of growing up. But as with any online experience, your children may be exposed to dangerous, upsetting or inappropriate content. Here are some of the main risks:

  • Account takeover: Gaming accounts can be a treasure trove of identity data. And children’s identities are a valuable commodity on the cybercrime underground. One recent report claims that nearly one million US kids were targeted by identity thieves over the past year. If accounts are only secured by easy-to-guess or crack passwords, then they may be at risk of takeover by hackers.
  • Malware: A classic technique used by cybercriminals is to hide malware in legitimate-looking gaming software, usually made available on unofficial app stores and torrent sites. Once downloaded, it could steal personal and financial information or compromise devices for use in botnets – which are used to launch attacks on others.
  • Cyberbullying: Unfortunately, bullying is a fact of life for many kids. Victims may be excluded from playing a certain game by their peers, or even exposed to verbal abuse on voice chat. Then there are the “griefers” and trollers who deliberately try to ruin games for others. A remarkable 65% of gamers have experienced severe harassment while playing games online.
  • Predators: Many games are designed to be played in teams or against others, with individuals able to communicate remotely via text chat, voice and/or video. Gamers might also chat to others in special forums or channels on Reddit, Discord and other platforms. Unfortunately, where there are kids there will also be predators looking to nurture unhealthy relationships, and potentially even move their conversations offline.
  • Scams: Some players may try to trick gamers into giving up “skins” and other valuable in-game items, possibly by offering them money that never materializes.
  • Inappropriate content: Some parents may also be concerned over the type of content their child is exposed to on various games. These can contain scenes of violence and adult content that some children may find upsetting.
  • Addiction: What starts out as a hobby can sometimes slip into addiction, impacting your child’s sleep, mood, behavior and even physical health. It’s sometimes difficult to spot the warning signs, but also important to keep an eye on given the potential repercussions.
  • Overspending: If children have access to a parent’s credit card, it’s all too easy for them to rack up large bills on in-game purchases. Some freemium games actively draw in kids and then attempt to persuade them to part with their cash in order to unlock more advanced features.

How to keep your kids safe online (not just) this holiday

A few simple strategies can help to minimize these risks and ensure your kids enjoy their new games this holiday season. Honest, open communication is among the most important things you can do. Here’s some more detailed advice:

  • Talk openly about the risks detailed above. Help your children to understand why you’re concerned, using simple examples to illustrate your point. It helps if you first familiarize yourself with the kind of content they’re playing, to make sure any advice is relevant. It’s sometimes hard to do, especially with teenagers, but creating a loving environment in which they know you’re there to help, without judgement, will go a long way.
  • Set some ground rules such as limits on how long your kids can play games in a day, and the type of content you deem inappropriate. Try to do this in as inclusive a way as possible, explaining your decisions to them to reduce the risk of them trying to breaking the rules.
  • Agree to take some time off from gaming to do some family activities. These can bring the family closer together, and possibly even prevent the slide into gaming addiction. This should also be done in an inclusive way – brainstorm suggested activities together, for example.
  • Don’t store your card details in family gaming accounts. That way, your kids won’t be able to overspend on your dollar.
  • Ensure all PCs and devices are protected with multi-layered security software from a reputable provider.
  • Teach your kids about strong passwords and even encourage them to use password managers and/or multi-factor authentication (MFA) to prevent account takeover.
  • Consider parental controls to block access to specific content and set time limits.

Christmas is a fantastic time of the year, especially for children. If your kids, like most of their peers, love gaming, then take time out to follow these tips and have a safe and happy holiday season.

Here’re a few more tips from ESET Chief Security Evangelist Tony Anscombe for how to keep your family safe not just over the festive period.

Happy holidays!

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