Put Safety First this Safer Internet Day

Written by Patricia E. Vance, President, ESRB
February 6, 2024

We always teach our kids to buckle up as soon as they sit down in a car. Or to look both ways before they cross the street. It’s “safety first” of course! This is no different with online safety, and Safer Internet Day is always a great opportunity to conduct an annual check-up on your family’s online safety practices, including  when it comes to playing video games online with others. As part of your check-up, here are some tips and shortcuts to help make sure your kids have appropriate… and safe… experiences online.

Take Inventory

If you’ve read our Safer Internet Day blogs in past years, a lot of this may sound familiar. But that doesn’t mean you should skip it! As your kids get older, they’ll naturally want to experience the internet differently. This is especially true as kids use video games and online platforms to socialize, as much as play. You may be finding that your kids want to build friendships by chatting on Discord, dropping into a Fortnite: Battle Royale session, or exploring what Roblox has to offer.

Nurturing an ongoing, judgement-free conversation with your kids about the games they are playing and friendships they are making helps you stay informed about what they’re doing online and why.  Coming across as judgmental or unaccepting of your kids’ love of video games discourages them from coming to you when they’re having trouble with something or somebody online out of fear that you’ll take them away!

It’s “safety first” of course!

Age and maturity play a big role in establishing appropriate online safety rules. Your 5th grader may not need or want as much access to playing games online. But jump to 6th grade and you may see your kid’s social circle regularly gather in a certain game or platform… and telling them they can’t means they’re cut off from their friends. Accordingly, you may feel more comfortable limiting your kids’ access to playing games online with strangers, and instead opting to only allow communications with people they know in real life (or even friends of friends). Checking in on a regular basis about the games they’re playing and with whom goes a long way to identifying potential issues and addressing them as a family.

Showing interest will also make it easier to reinforce household rules around online video game play, including with whom your kids can play, when and for how long they can play, and more.

Setting Appropriate Household Rules and Taking Advantage of Parental Controls

ESRB’s Family Gaming Guide provides actionable tips to help get started with managing your kids’ online communications. Once you and your family have established some household rules, visit ParentalTools.org for step-by-step parental controls guides. These include settings to manage with whom your kids can communicate online. In some cases, you can even curate your kids’ friends lists to make sure they’re only directly communicating with people they know in real life (if those are part of your rules). These guides can also give you a rundown of how to set up child accounts on their device(s) of choice. Child accounts often come with automated settings to help protect kids online, so it’s vital that when setting up a child account and registering a new device that an accurate age is entered for each child’s account.

Family Gaming Guide Logo

Most game devices have parental controls that can help enforce household rules when you’re not around, like managing which games your kids can play based on the assigned ESRB age rating, when and for how long they can play, and whether they can spend real money on new games and/or in-game purchases.

Sharing is (Not Always) Caring

One of the most important things to discuss with your kids is what they can and cannot share with others when playing games online. This may not be an issue for kids that are only allowed to communicate with friends, family and classmates when playing online, but regardless of age they should always know what personal information they should keep to themselves no matter what, such as:

  • Their real name
  • Where/when they were born
  • Their location (state, town, street name, etc.)
  • Where they go to school
  • Anything else that can be traced directly to them

As innocent and normal it is to share personal stories or details about your life with new friends, people can sometimes guess passwords and usernames or other personal information based on what is shared. Here again, it’s critical that child accounts are set up with an accurate age, as federal and state laws limit the amount of personal data a game or service can collect without your consent!

ESRB’s Family Gaming Guide also includes helpful tips about protecting your kids’ online privacy here.

Manners Matter

It may go without saying, but your kids’ online presence is a reflection of their in-person presence. And just like in real life it’s important to impress upon kids that if they don’t have anything nice to say, then saying nothing is usually a better option.

While your kids will probably heed this advice, not everyone does! If your kids ever encounter someone that is behaving inappropriately, there are several measures your kids can take to make sure they don’t encounter that individual in the future. First and foremost, virtually every console, platform, and service that enables people to communicate has mute and block features. Activating mute will allow your kids to continue playing, but without commentary ruining the fun. Blocking a player will prevent any contact.

It’s critical that child accounts are set up with an accurate age!

For particularly offensive people your kids can also report bad actors to whomever manages the community, be it a platform or video game publisher. Companies have community guidelines which dictate what is and what is not permitted. If a player violates community guidelines and is reported, the publisher or platform holder in question can take various measures to prevent that player from continuing to negatively impact other players’ experiences. Depending on the company and the severity of the situation, this may be a warning, a suspension, or a permanent ban.

Think Outside the Game

The measures you and your family take to build safer video game experiences can easily translate to the internet as a whole (and maybe even real life). Our lives are increasingly more connected, and this can be doubly true for children – especially after so many experienced full-time remote school during the pandemic. Many of the tips we’ve discussed in this blog about video games can be applied to other types of online activity. Platforms like YouTube, Discord, and Twitch all enable users to communicate with others and offer settings to help you manage how your kids communicate. Meanwhile, social media platforms are frequently updating and expanding tools to help parents manage how their kids share and see.

The key is this: Stay involved! You know what’s best for your kids, and the simplest way to keep up is to manage internet safety as a team.

Patricia E. Vance is the president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).Patricia E. Vance is the president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). In her position, she leads the teams responsible for assigning age and content ratings to video games and apps, enforcing marketing guidelines adopted by the video game industry, and operating ESRB Privacy Certified, an FTC-sanctioned COPPA Safe Harbor Privacy seal certification program.