The worry over how our kids and teenagers will navigate an online world full of images, language, and people we’d prefer they never encounter is not reserved for parents alone. Many other adults in their lives, from teachers and mentors to aunts and uncles, also feel a sense of responsibility for keeping kids safe as they slowly, but surely, begin to develop a digital life. One such uncle wrote in to Parental Advisory to ask just how closely he should be tracking who his teenage nephews are gaming with online.
Here’s his question:
I’ve been gaming online with my two 13-year-old nephews for about a year now. I live in New York and they live in Texas, so I bought them a PlayStation+ membership for Christmas as a way for us to spend time together—it allows them to play all their games online, and not just Fortnite. And it works great! We play together every week, and they often get to play with my friends, as well, and be exposed to some professional gamers, which they love. It’s also exposed them to the adult-ness of my friends, which I can usually moderate and handle pretty well when we’re online together.
But I’ve noticed recently that some of the more random adults are becoming more regular gaming friends with my nephews—as in, they’ll keep playing with each other when I’m not online myself. I’m not worried about my personal friends—they’re great, and are thoughtful about how they interact with 13-year olds—but my nephews are building a friends list of adult players who I don’t know personally, who they play with increasingly often.
Online gaming makes my nephews’ friends more anonymous, but I can still see their friends list. Should I keep track of their usernames? Or should I just focus on teaching them online civility and how to best navigate when they’re online? When I was a kid, my parents had an idea of which kids had the potty mouth or reputation for getting into trouble at school, and while I can’t know real names these days, I can know usernames. Is it worth keeping track? Halp!
Your question struck such a chord with me because my son is 10 years old and we’re just starting to wade into the world of online multiplayer gaming. Right now, he plays mostly with in-real-life friends, but also with the occasional random online “friend.” And I know that’s only going to continue to increase. He tells me about these new friends, but it’s much harder to mentally keep track of who “RagingTurtle375″ is, versus Josh from his soccer team. So, I reached out to Dr. Sarah Domoff, a clinical child psychologist who specializes in children’s media use. And she said you’re already doing more right than you might realize.
To start, whenever we’re talking about helping kids navigate an online world, Domoff says it’s important to take a holistic approach. Knowing or somehow tracking who your children (or in your case, your nephews) are spending time with is a small piece of the much larger digital literacy puzzle. And in some ways, the approach we take in helping them learn to operate safely online is not terribly different from helping them learn to operate independently out in the real world.
What I mean is that your nephews might have some buddies in their neighborhood or at school that you don’t particularly care for—kids who use profane language, have a bad attitude, engage in risky behaviors, are often in trouble, or otherwise give off a negative vibe. Being an important adult influence in their lives is less about micromanaging those specific relationships and more about teaching them how to manage them. How to respond to hurtful or bullying behavior, what to do when someone is being inappropriate, where to go when you need help, and how to stay safe are things we need to teach them about their online and offline life.
“So I think one great thing is that he’s aware of what his nephews are doing, and he’s finding a way to positively connect with them through gaming,” says Domoff, who is also director of the Family Health Lab at Central Michigan University. “That’s definitely something we encourage parents, other caregivers, and other family members to do. If your children or your adolescents are gaming, learn about the games or join them in the games. Be part of that, and then provide them with support to navigate those situations online.”
If (when) tweens or teens start gaming online, it’s important to remember that it’s really not a matter of if they will come across something inappropriate or someone with nefarious intentions; it’s a matter of when. It’s important to keep an open dialogue with them about those situations, including talking about the options within specific platforms for reporting abusive behavior—this is another reason why it’s good to be familiar with what they’re playing.
You’ll also want to talk about who they can go to (you!) if they’re not sure what to do and how you’ll help them, whether that’s brainstorming a response or trying to figure out what other protective actions you can take together. And—this is key, Domoff says—be sure to emphasize that communicating with you about what they’re experiencing will not lead to them losing those gaming privileges. As long as they are acting appropriately and following the platform’s rules, you don’t want to take their games away; you want to help them have a fun and safe experience.
But, as I said earlier, digital literacy and online safety isn’t just about who they are speaking to or who they are gaming with; to develop healthy habits, there’s much more to it than that. It’s also about balancing their online life with other interests—making sure they participate in screen-free hobbies or activities, and emphasizing the importance of getting enough sleep. And, Domoff says, it’s also important to talk with young gamers about the financial components and structures of whatever game they’re playing.
“We want youth who are gaming to really be able to be aware of some of the different mechanisms within games that encourage spending money and that encourage longer gameplay,” she says. “And so in addition to being aware of what your teen is seeing on the games and who they’re talking to, we also have to consider the financial piece, too.”
It’s a lot to cover, and it can be hard to know where to start and how to have all of these conversations, but there are lots of great resources out there. Common Sense Media has detailed reviews about virtually all of the most popular media and video games, so you can find details about game-specific concerns, parental controls, and reporting options there. (Here’s their guide to Fortnite, for example.)
Domoff also recommends Children and Screen’s YouTube channel, where experts cover a variety of digital literacy topics and the impacts of technology on children’s health and well-being. Her own website, too, has lists of helpful articles on these topics.
So, to answer your question: Do you need to keep track of your nephews’ online friends lists? No, not particularly. You just need to keep being the caring, involved uncle you already are, model healthy gaming habits, and be a support for them as they begin to navigate tricky situations.
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