Our kids are growing up "connected" in a way that we could never have imagined when we were their age. Remember when we used to sit by the phone waiting for friends to call?  Those days are long gone. Staying in touch with friends is now a "constant" in our kids' lives, thanks to cell phones, texting, instant messaging, and even video chat on their computers. And that doesn't count the new "friends" they may be making on social networking sites. Well, it's no different with the video games they play, as more and more kids play the games that you purchase in retail stores over an online connection with friends and, perhaps unbeknownst to you, other gamers they have never met.  

Feel like throwing up your hands in defeat? No need to. Based on my own personal experience as a parent, there are several simple measures you can take to help ensure your children's experience online is safe and age-appropriate, particularly when it comes to playing online-enabled games. Although tools like ESRB ratings provide helpful guidance when purchasing or renting games and the parental controls empower parents by blocking access to games by rating category, the reality is that we need to be involved in more than just which games our kids play, but also how they play them, particularly when doing so online.

Talking to Your Kids About the Risks While Appreciating the Rewards of Playing Games Online

The Internet and the connectivity it brings to the experience of playing video games has significantly increased both the risks and rewards for gamers. And the more we understand about both the rewards and, especially, the risks, the better off we'll be. Generally, online-enabled video games allow players to interact and compete with one another in real-time, making for a more exciting, social and immersive experience. Many of these games offer live communication, which can include voice or text chat features. Obviously, this increases potential exposure to offensive language, harassment, and other types of verbal abuse by other players.

These possibilities concern me just as they would any parent, but I've taught my children to manage their online interactions the same way they would address problems with friends and strangers in the offline world: be cautious, be considerate, and be heard. Be cautious about what and with whom you communicate. Be considerate of others' feelings just as you would want them to be of yours. And tell someone if you experience something strange or disturbing. As parents, we all do our best to prepare our kids to deal with certain types of social interactions in the real world, and we should be making those very same efforts when it comes to the virtual world. 

Fortunately, when it comes to playing video games online, there are a number of highly effective tools available and additional measures you can take to help address uncomfortable or risky social interactions.

Look for the Online Rating Notice

With the growing popularity of online-enabled games, you will often encounter ESRB's Online Rating Notice, which states: "Online Interactions Not Rated By The ESRB." This warning means that when the game is played online, there might be exposure to content that was not considered when the rating was assigned. This Notice can be found on the front and/or back of packages of games that are online-enabled, just below the ESRB rating. The Notice also appears on-screen prior to accessing the online features in the game.

Key Safety Tips for Playing Games Online

In general, here are some basic online safety principles for you to follow:

  1. Block. By activating parental controls built into most gaming devices today, you can block out strangers and sometimes even restrict the people your children can play with to only a select group of approved friends, kind of like a Gamer Buddy list.  
  2. Mute. The in-game "mute" feature allows you to disable the ability to chat with other players during a game, whether it's text on-screen or voice chat over a headset.
  3. Monitor. Frequently checking to see what your child is playing and who they are playing with is essential. Some online services provide parents with the option to view a list of players their children have interacted with during an online session, which can be helpful in determining whom they can and cannot play with.
  4. Speak Up. In addition to blocking a player who behaves inappropriately, you can also notify a game's publisher or online service about the offender. Check the online service's or game publisher's Terms of Service for instructions on how to file a complaint about another player, and be sure to include as much information as possible about the player in question.

Beware of Mods and Cheat Devices

While it requires little technical sophistication to chat while playing games, some gamers have the technical know-how to modify or introduce elements into a game that can change its content from that which was purchased in the store, sometimes in ways that are not consistent with the ESRB rating. For example, these gamers, also called "modders," can change character "skins" (i.e. altering the appearance of characters, sometimes to make them appear nude), "maps" (which change the setting in which people are playing), weapons or other elements. Modders usually offer their altered or newly created content to other players in the form of a free downloadable program called a "mod" (short for modification), although games can also be modified using special cheat devices sold at retail, such as the GameShark or Action Replay Max. A general rule of thumb is to periodically and literally look over your child's shoulder when they are playing games, and this is particularly helpful when it comes to mods.

Best Practices for Parents

Here are a few additional common sense practices you can adopt to help manage your child's online activities:

  1. Stay Informed. Educate yourself and your children about the virtual worlds and communities they're exploring. This could mean anything from video games to social networking websites. Technology and how it gets used evolves rapidly, so it's important to keep up to date. Numerous resources, both online and off, offer an abundance of information to help navigate the waters and keep your family safe.
  2. Be Involved. Being involved, vigilant and proactive is crucial to online safety. Many recommend keeping the game console or PC in a common area of the home instead of in the child's bedroom. This allows you to keep an eye and ear on the action. More importantly, establish ongoing dialogues with your children about what they are doing and with whom they are playing online. Use this Family Discussion Guide to help structure conversations with your child.
  3. Set Limits. Set and discuss limits on what your children can do on the Internet and how long they are allowed to play games online or off.  Establish rules you are comfortable with. You may even want to consider signing a Family Internet Safety Pledge with your child.
  4. Don't disclose. Ensure that your children know not to divulge personal or financially sensitive information about themselves or other family members when completing profiles, purchasing items, or interacting with others online.

Maintaining safe Internet habits for your family requires little technical know-how. It all boils down to common sense. Don't let yourself feel overwhelmed by the vastness of the Internet, speed of change or lack of comfort level with new technology. Since experience is often the best teacher, I encourage you to try playing games with your child to get a first-hand understanding of the ones he or she enjoys. At a minimum, you'll learn about the games themselves and what draws your child to them, or even get to know their online gamer community. And who knows-don't be surprised if you end up on your child's Gamer Buddy list!

Patricia Vance is president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a non-profit organization that assigns age and content ratings for computer and video games. She is an interactive media expert and mother of two. For more information visit www.ESRB.org.