It’s Place2Be’s Children’s Mental Health Week (6-12 February 2023) in the UK, bringing to light just how important the mental wellbeing of children is. The theme this year, “Lets Connect, highlights the importance of children's mental wellbeing, the connections they form, and monitoring their online spaces where they connect with others.
Pre 21st century we connected in person, wrote letters, sent postcards and generally only spoke to people in our local areas or close family. In 2023 more people than ever have access to smart phones, computers, games consoles and more to help them connect with people they know and people they don’t all over the world.
Chances are children are mingling online with strangers, whether that’s on popular video app, TikTok or playing Minecraft online. TikTok recently announced a parental control feature, making it easier for parents to restrict content their child can see, limit screen time and see exactly what they’ve been viewing on the app in your own account.
Online gaming, however, is not as easily managed. Minecraft, a popular game with people of all ages, but most loved by its younger demographic, can be played online, offline, alone or with friends. How can we make sure children are playing Minecraft online with people safely?
What is Minecraft and Why is it so Popular?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock since 2009 you probably have heard of Minecraft or seen its merchandise in stores. Minecraft is a 3D style sandbox game developed by Mojang Studios, development began in early 2009 and the game was fully released to the general public in 2011. Since then, Minecraft has slowly taken over the gaming world, and now has over 140 million active players, that’s more than the entire population of Mexico!
Minecraft is popular thanks to its many game modes. Enjoy an easy game with Creative Mode and unleash your inner designer, or try Survival if you want to explore the games maps while discovering resources, items and fighting off any bad guys like those pesky creepers! Adventure Mode in Minecraft brings quests, building challenges and more. Meanwhile Hardcore Mode speaks for itself, it’s the next challenge for seasoned Minecraft players, if you get hit too many times or fall in lava you die, if you don’t eat food, you’ll be slow, you must work to thrive and survive.
Who Plays Minecraft?
You might be thinking Minecraft is just for kids and no adults play, but the average age of Minecraft players is actually 24 years old! Children as young as 3 have been known to play Minecraft, although the games official age rating is 7+. More than 50% of young boys aged 3-12 and 46% of girls the same age play Minecraft on a regular basis.
Minecraft was originally only available on PC & Phones before coming to consoles in 2012, and now available on just about every console including the Nintendo Switch. No matter what platform you play on, you have the ability to join servers and play online with other people, whether you know them or not.
What Risks Do Children & Young People Face Online?
Online gaming provides quality social interactions and can lead to genuine connections between players, but there are many dangers lurking on the world wide web. With children as young as 3 playing Minecraft it’s important to know what to look out for to protect growing minds.
No longer just on social media and forums, cyber bullying can take place right where children are playing a game with their friends. It could start as one player being called names for making a team lose a match or forcing unexperienced players to do hard tasks which means they game over more quickly. This escalates over time to children being bombarded with messages of harassment, racist comments, threats of violence and even players finding out and spreading personal information about another player.
Personal Information Leaks
Your personal information can easily be used against you when someone wants to harm or upset you. Children often create usernames using their real name, favourite sports team and more, leaving them highly vulnerable to information leaks and hackers guessing login information. We often think we’re doing the right thing when recycling our old electronics or selling them second hand, but Kaspersky, anti-virus software provider, warns that many people leave their personal & financial information on them before handing them over. They recommend “Before getting rid of any computer, game console, tablet or smartphone, you should wipe all personal data from and then perform a factory reset.”
You’ve probably heard news stories of children racking up thousands on their parent’s credit cards buying skins, loot boxes and extra content in what they thought was a free game. Microtransactions is the word to describe users buying virtual content in a game for a small amount of money. These quickly spiral out of control when you purchase an item like a loot box, you’re playing lucky dip on the item you get, some even consider microtransactions as form of gambling aimed at children.
Grooming online is a serious problem, not just in online gaming but on social media, online forums and messaging apps. Children can easily make connections with someone pretending to be a similar age and appearing to be a friend. This becomes more dangerous if the child lacks a good support system, might feel bullied in other spaces or has different needs. Vulnerable children can be forming connections and relationships with people looking to harm them, convince them to sell drugs, get involved in gang crime, expose themselves online or even meet up with them in person.
What is the Gaming Industry Doing to Keep People Safe?
Just like TikTok has introduced features to allow more parental control, gaming giants are working harder than ever to protect their users, no matter their age. In 2020 Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo partnered together to make gaming safer for the whole community. The gaming giants pledged to create a more positive and respectable environment and outlined a set of safety principles.
Ubisoft & Northumbria Police Join Forces
Creators of franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Just Dance, Ubisoft, have announced they are teaming up with Northumbria Police Force to tackle ‘toxic gaming’. At their Newcastle based customer relationship base, Ubisoft’s team monitors how players in their games are getting on and respond to any requests for help or problems with other’s behaviour. Andrew Holliday told the BBC about a recent case that involved a user in Norway where there was a serious concern of threat to life or serious harm, by being able to work closely with the force, the police decided to intervene and get in touch with Norwegian authorities to deescalate the problem.
How Can We Protect Children While Gaming Online?
Online games are meant to be played together, and your children want to play with their friends, so how can you ensure they are playing safely? These are our top tips for letting your little ones play games online safely:
• Set up accounts for your children, avoid using profile pictures that could show who the user is, use a cartoon character or an avatar instead. Setting up accounts allows parents to set privacy settings like sharing information or allowing for user-to-user communication.
• Choose a Username & Password that doesn’t include important, identifiable information such as full names, school, home address or date of birth.
• Set rules for using the games. Good ground rules could be limiting screen time, asking before adding in game friends and talking about what’s happened if your child is upset when playing.
• Look into add-ons, mods and plugins before letting your child add them into their game. This way you can be sure there are no hidden viruses or unsuitable content for their age.
• Let your children know that they can talk to you about anything. They might just talk to you about the amazing bike their friend has, or how you can go to the nether in Minecraft, but if they feel they can talk to you about their interests positively they are more likely to talk to you if something or someone is upsetting them, online or offline.
• Don’t store your card details online in the game, always approve transactions or require a password for any transactions that your child might be able to purchase while playing online.
For some extra support in keeping your children safe while playing games online, check out the Online Safety Guide from Childline.
How Can I Ensure My Child Doesn’t Play with Strangers?
All the above might sound scary and might make you feel like you don’t want your child to be playing online with other people without you constantly watching over them. But there are ways to help keep your child safe all while letting them play with their friends.
Creating Your Own Minecraft Server
Buying your own Minecraft Server Hosting is a concrete way to ensure no one can get into your child’s server without your consent. There aren’t just Minecraft game servers available either, many popular games also have private servers you can create such as Ark: Survival Evolved, Rust and Counter Strike: Global Offensive.
You don’t need to have much technical knowledge to manage and run a server for your children and their friends to play on, there are in-depth guides on the internet and on your server hosting providers website that can help you do things like Install Plugins on a Minecraft Server, Ban Players from a Minecraft Server and more.
They won’t break the bank either, Iceline Hosting offers Minecraft Servers from as little as £3.10/$3.10 for the first month, with unlimited player spots, instant setup, 7 worldwide locations, 99.99% uptime and 24/7 support, and 4.8 star rating on trust pilot, it’s a safe choice to go with for creating your child their own private Minecraft Server.
We don’t think you can really put a price on your child’s safety online, but it’s definitely worth investing some time and effort into keeping them safe and happy while enjoying being connected with friends and the big wide world.