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Video Games and Your Child or Young Person: A Parent’s Guide

Last year, Parenting NI wrote an article on video games and your children, which is available here. In that article, we spoke about the impacts of video games on children. We also spoke the positive and negative effects games might have on your child or young person, and went thorough where you might get more information.

However, due to consistent calls on the topic to the Regional Parent’s Helpline, we realised that it would be useful if we gave parents an overview of the games their children are playing.

Photo by Jessica Lewis

So, do you know your Battle Royales from your MOBAs? Do you know how much 100 “Vbucks” cost? Is your child or young person in a “clan” online? If you don’t know what any of this means – don’t worry! This article will go through three of the most popular games as of August 2018, and explain a few mechanics that are common in many games that parents should be aware of.

Roblox – PEGI rating “7”

If you have quite young children (particularly if they are still in primary school) you may have heard of Roblox. Launched in 2006, Robolox is what is called a “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game” or MMORPG for short.

So what makes Roblox different, and what makes it particularly popular with younger children? Well, firstly, like all three games on this list Roblox is “free to play”. That means that in order to download and play the game, no money is required. This makes it accessible for children. Secondly, the unique element of Roblox is that is functions somewhat like an online version of LEGO. Players can develop their own games, which are hosted in a social media style list.

In fact, it is easier to understand Roblox not as a single, large game, but as a collection of many hundreds of smaller mini-games. You keep the same “character” in each of these games, and players can pay real money to customise their character. There are a wide range of “games” to play on Roblox. Unlike a typical game the quality, length and style of these games is varied. Many are copies of more popular games.

The appeal, particularly to younger children is the opportunity to play a sort of off-brand version of games that they may otherwise be unable to afford or that their parents are unwilling to purchase. For example, one of the most popular games is “Mining Simulator” based on Minecraft.

Gameplay – or what exactly players do in game – can vary widely. In one game, they may be building collaboratively, or attempting to work together to escape a maze. They may be pretending to be the manager of a company, or they may be fighting one another. Because of the simplistic and child-like graphics of Roblox, even potentially violent imagery is unlikely to be considered very offensive according to video games rating organisations.

Parents should be aware that while most games are harmless and the variety means that children have an opportunity to play many different types of games, there are issues with quality control. There have been incidents of inappropriate or obscene content and games. While Roblox attempts to keep this to a minimum, the volume of games (there are thousands of game types) makes this difficult. Not all games are free – some require a user to pay a fee (usually small) to access the game. However, because these games are user-created there are no specific rules about what must or must not be paid for.

Photo by Soumil Kumar

If you have a child or young person who plays Roblox, then you have most likely been asked to purchase “ROBUX” before. As previously mentioned, Roblox is free to play the basic game. However, the game earns money by selling in-game items for your in-game character. These are often user-generated and have an enormous variety. These items are bought using in game money called “Robux”. There are a number of ways in which a player might earn ROBUX, but the primary method is purchasing for real money.

Keeping in mind that there are more than 6000 items) it is easy to see how Roblox can become an expensive hobby quickly, despite being “free to play”. In addition, the items for sale may or may not be suitable for younger children. Because of the exclusivity of the paid for items, there is prestige associated with having them in game. This contributes to the appeal for players, particularly young players who have limited access to the money to buy the items themselves.

A strong component of Roblox popularity is the social aspects of the game. While most online games will have some form of interactivity, the “massively multiplayer” aspect of Roblox is one of the primary draws for players. Each game type will have multiple separate games playing called “servers”. Servers are listed and players can join if they are open and have spare slots.

A player will not necessarily know the other players on their server. Each server (and game type) will be different, and as such may have different rules and regulations. Some basic rules apply over all servers, which Roblox have collected in their community guidelines. These are fairly extensive and ban things like swearing, sexualisation and bullying. It is important for parents to keep in mind that much of this moderation requires the behaviours being reported, and therefore can be inconsistent or slow.

Players can add others to a “friends list”, if they both have a Roblox account. While this is helpful for children or young people who wish to play together, there is no requirement that that they know each other in real life. Parenting NI would recommend parents get to know who is on their child’s “friend list”.

Fortnite – PEGI rating “12”

If you have heard of any of the games on this list, you have probably heard of Fortnite. Fortnite is a shooter game, played in either first person (looking “though” the eyes of the player) or third-person (looking over the shoulder of the player) perspective.  Fortnite was first released in 2017, reaching 125 million players by June of 2018.

While there are two main game “styles”, by far the more popular is “Battle Royale”. This mode pits up to 100 individual players into a last-man standing battle. Players can play alone (called Solos) or in squads of twos (Duos) or fours (Quads). Players start in a “battle bus”, a literal bus pictured above which flies over the playing field. Players jump (or “drop”) at a chosen point. Upon landing, they scavenge for items such as guns and armour and seek to be the last person (or team) alive. At this point, the game is over and a winner is announced. They can also build structures or defences in the game in real time.

Photo by Jamie McInall

Like Roblox, Fortnite is free to play the base game. Those seeking “skins” (costumes for player characters), “emotes” (animations such as dances) or other cosmetic items must purchase these with in-game money called “Vbucks”. VBucks range in price – because Fortnite can be played on the Xbox, a computer, on a phone or other platforms. They can be spent in-game on a rotating selection of items.

There are a number of subtle marketing tactics that are in play with in-game purchases as opposed to using real money. Firstly, any given item is only available to purchase in a random rotation. When a player sees a costume they want, there is an urgency to buy right away – or else they may have to wait an undetermined period of time for another chance.

Secondly, the fact that Vbucks are bought in blocks of hundreds, players usually have left over in-game currency. This creates a feeling that unused currency is “money wasted” and encourages further purchases of Vbucks to “make use” of the remainder.

In this way, the game makes buying items quickly and repeatedly very appealing to a player. It also helps to explain why a child may be insistent on day that a parent provide money, and seem relatively disinterested the next. Those who do not (or cannot afford to) buy items are sometimes mocked as “no-skins” or “nobodies”.

The popularity of Fortnite is intrinsically linked to “streaming”, this is the practice of sharing video in real-time of your game play with others. The two most popular websites for streaming are Youtube and Twitch. As of writing, there are more than 121,000 people watching Fortnite on switch and the most popular “streamers” are casting to an audience in excess of 29,000 viewers. The appeal of watching their favourite “streamers” is similar to watching a professional sport match. Those watching a stream can communicate with each other and with the person casting via a “chat” system. A sub-culture often sprouts up around a particular streamer. This can include in-jokes, common slang terms and other elements that are easily identifiable to those in the know, and unintelligible to those without.

Popular streamers are able to earn significant sums of money from donations, brand deals and advertising. The prospect of making money playing video games, along with having loyal fans explains why many children have begun to see “streamer” or “youtuber” as an exciting potential career. If a group of children or young people at school all follow the same streamer, it can become an important part of their social life. However, it is very important for parents to understand that while the video game is providing the background and content for the stream, the stream itself is not regulated in the same manner.

League of Legends – PEGI rating “12”

League of Legends, or LoL is a free to play Multiplayer Online Battle Arena or MOBA game. In this game, and others like it (Defence of the Ancients 2, Smite and Heroes of the Storm for example) two teams of 3-5 each players choose “champion” characters and battle for control of a map. League of Legends is arguably the most popular MOBA – with around 100 million active players per month. Like Fortnite or Roblox, League of Legends is free to play, and makes money by selling in-game items and characters.

Photo by Hitesh Choudhar

There are around 140 different “champions” in League of Legends. Each has a slightly different play style –for example, one may be effective at long range or may be able to heal friends of damage. League of legends is an older game, first released in 2009. Its game play is also arguably more complex and challenging than Roblox’s most popular modes and Fortnite’s battle royale. As a result of both of these factors, the player base for League of Legends tends to be a little older. In all likelihood, if your child or young person is playing league of legends or another MOBA they will be in their mid to later teens. If they are playing League of Legends or other MOBA games, and are younger, parents should be particularly cautious.

Not every champion is available to play at all times. Each week, a different selection of champions will be available to play for free. If a player wishes to play as a champion who is not in the current rotation, they have to purchase them.  In League of Legends, there are two types of currency, a standard and premium. These are:

“Riot Points” – this is the premium currency. These must be bought and can be used to purchase cosmetic items and champions.

“Blue Essence” – This is the standard currency, and is earned via playing the game.

By having some items available to purchase with points rather than only for real money, the developers can argue that they are not as exploitative as normal free to play games. One of the issues with this is that the quality and range of items available for purchase with premium currency is much more than with standard.

One of the major concerns that parents may have about League of Legends and other MOBA games is the toxicity of the community that their child is playing with. While all online games will have a level of unpleasant behaviour, League of Legends is renowned for having a particular problem with this. While the developers of the game have made consistent efforts to address this, the gameplay loop of league of legends is uniquely susceptible to problem behaviour.

If your child or young person is having strong reactions to their performance in video games, the best step a parent can take is to talk to them. Parents may justifiably feel that their child or young person is overreacting to a loss in a game, but should take the time to consider why they may be acting in this way. It is possible that they are simply upset about the game, but equally it may be a sign of more general frustration in life.

Asking your young person why they feel so emotionally invested and get so upset is an opportunity to talk about feelings and how to deal with emotions. Simply shutting them down and telling them to “get over it” may inadvertently cause more stress.

Payment and Parental Controls

You may have read stories in the media about parents who have gotten stung with large, unexpected bills because of their child’s in-game purchases. The main manner by which this happens is parents accidentally letting the game “save” their credit card details. In the same way that Tesco, Amazon or any number of online businesses can save details to make payment easier, so to can video games.

From there, it is relatively easy for children or young people to make further purchases. They may do this intentionally, but it is equally likely that they will click assuming that it will not work. The best way to combat this is to ensure that you do not tick “save my payment details” when making a purchase. Alternatively, many games allow you to make physical purchases of vouchers that can be redeemed online. If you use this method, no payment details are ever processed by the game.

Photo by George Becker

Another important aspect of video gaming, particularly for younger children are parental controls. Some games have specific parental controls built in, but the easiest way to implement them is via the platform that your child or young person uses to play the game. In the case of the three games that are listed here, the “platform” is a PC, Xbox or PlayStation. Each has its own method of implementing parental controls. For a PC, this is a little more complicated, as parents will often need to install third-party programmes to monitor and restrict access to individual websites, games or programmes. Rather than suggesting a particular company, Parenting NI would advise parents to ask someone in their life who is comfortable with computers to help, or to ask for help from an expert.

For PlayStation and Xbox, setting up parental controls involves going into the settings on the consoles. On the Xbox, head to “Settings > Account > Family” and choose your child or young person’s username. From there, you will be presented with a number of options to restrict games based on age rating. On a PlayStation, go to “Settings > Parental controls/Family Management > Parental Controls”. Again, you will be presented with a number of individual options to restrict games and features.

Conclusion

Video games are a fast evolving medium. By the time that you are reading this article, it is entirely possible that all of the above games will have waned in popularity. Equally, there are thousands of games available, and your child or young person may be playing any of them.

It is important to try to know the names of the games that your child is playing. Games are regulated by the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) system, and are rated. Parents can go on to the PEGI website here, and can search for any game. This will give an overview of the content of the game, and help parents to determine if the game is suitable for their child. This system works like movie ratings, and Parenting NI would strongly encourage parents to check the ratings of every game that they know their child is playing.

The most effective step that a parent can take is communicating with their young person. While taking an active interest in the games your child or young person plays may be challenging, having a general understanding of what they play and what is involved will help allay fears and catch problems. It is unreasonable to expect a parent to have an in-depth understanding of every video game that their child may play. However, rather than seeing them as mystifying sources of concern, parents should see their children’s interest in gaming as an opportunity.

Instead of saying “this is a waste of your time” or “go outside and play”, which may lead to an argument, ask “what do you like about that game?”. Children will appreciate the chance to talk about their interests, and parents may learn more about what their child enjoys.

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Connected Children: How Young is “Too Young” for a Smartphone?

Smartphones are the unavoidable icon of modern life...


The pace with which smartphones have become established is remarkable, they are now as integrated into modern culture as cars or computers. Today around 30% of Children aged 9 own a smart phone, rising to more than 90% by the age of 16 (Mascheroni & Ólafsson, 2015). In the UK, 1 in 8 children have a mobile by the age of 8 (Aviva, 2017). 

While there are a range of benefits to children using technology, there are also a number of undeniable risks. “What age should I give my child a phone?” is a common question we hear from parents. It can be difficult to strike the balance between keeping children safe and socially isolating them.

This Parent's Guide article will examine the statistics and weigh up the pros and cons for parents and children.

Impact of Smartphones on...

Young Children

There is no strict rule as to when children are “ready” for smart phones. Research has noted children of less than 30 months old cannot learn from videos in the same way as real-life. Therefore, one of the most significant positive factors of using technology does not apply to them. 

What age do the benefits (or negatives) of technology begin to impact on children?

It is difficult to be clear about the possible benefits and opportunities of internet usage for young children. Some research will suggest that owning a mobile device will increase readiness for schools. Educational apps and games can help with development of skills that might otherwise be difficult for parents.

On the other hand, there are many reports suggest "too much tech" from a young age negatively impacts on children.  This year, The Guardian reported that children were struggling to hold pencils properly because they had been playing with phones or tablets. In addition, a  University of Toronto report found that “infants with more handheld screen time have an increased risk of an expressive speech delay” (Birken, 2017). They found that every 30 minute increase in the daily use of handheld screens in very young children translated into a 49% increased risk of speech delay.

Another risk related concern is very young people being able to connect with a wide range of individuals. Use of communication apps can leave them vulnerable to grooming. Less obvious, are potential dangers from interactions which are secondary to the purpose of the app. This was seen in 2017 when YouTube reporting function on children's videos had not been working properly.

It is difficult to argue that young children benefit greatly from ownership of a smartphone. While there are certainly some advantages to making judicious usage of educational apps, excessive or unrestricted access is highly detrimental.

However, that's not to say you can't occasionally let your young children watch a YouTube video or Skype with relatives!

Primary Age Children

Around 68% of parents think children should be at least 9 before they get their first phone, and around a third suggesting 12 as a minimum age. Equally, most parents will feel that it is appropriate for teenagers to have access. 

Research tells us that 11 is when most children get their first phone. However, sites which children may want to access on their phone, such as Instagram and Snapchat, require you to be at least 13. Children younger than this could be exposed to content they are not ready for.

Another risk associated with primary aged children having a smartphone, is the the chance of them experiencing cyber-bullying. Research says that younger children would be more likely to report being the victim of physical bullying. Whereas, older pupils would be more likely to report experiencing more types of cyber-bullying. Not having a phone is by no means a guarantee of protection from online-bullying, but the link is significant.

What are the benefits?

Safety is a benefit parents will often think of when it comes to their child owning a phone. It is good to be able to contact your child as they start independent activities, like after school clubs or going out with friends. Access to the internet and services like Google Maps could assist if the child is lost, or unsure of where to ask for help.

Skills children develop by using technology, including smart phones, is increasingly important in later life. A report for the Department of Education in England noted that building digital skills were “an essential contemporary skill set”. Depriving a child of this may also inadvertently disadvantage them.

Additionally, there is the social aspect to having a phone. All parents are familiar with the cry that “everyone else in class has one”. However, statistics suggest that children may not be exaggerating in this regard. The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne Australia released a report in 2017  stating that “Young children owning smartphones is the new normal”. Numbers for the UK broadly align with this. In effect, when deciding when a child should first receive a phone a parent is making a difficult choice that affects not just their safety or education development, but also their social status.

Teenagers and Young Adults

Most teenagers will have a smartphone. They are also extremely avid consumers of online content via their phones. Over a third of young people claiming to be online more than 6 hours a day on weekends and almost a quarter spending this amount of time on week days. UK usage in both cases is above the OECD average, meaning that parents in the UK face a greater challenge than parents of the rest of the world. 

However, the benefits of phone usage can increase with age. Particularly as a young person becomes increasingly independent. With likely access to their own money,  particularly for over 16's, there are less levels of potential parental control. 

Despite the benefits, which the guide has explored, there are concerns around teens phone use too... 

41% of parents said that they find it difficult to control their child’s screen time. 

A report looking at over a thousand teens in Australia found that poor-quality sleep associated with late-night texting or calling was linked to a decline in mental health. The reasons given for such use, particularly late at night, were a “fear of missing out” on content. The reasons for this vary for boys and girls. Many girls noted major US-based social media influencers whose content they consume, means the time differences account for the "need" to be awake and active online at night. On the other hand, boys note that major video game content creators are based in East Asia, again complicating sleep.  Poor sleep, coupled with potential cyber-bullying can have negative effects on teenagers. When they are put into stressful or difficult circumstances without the defence of being well-rested, it is easy to see how it can impact physical and mental health.

Gaming and Sexting

Gaming on phones is something all children can take part in, but it is particularly popular with teenagers. Around 70% of teens play video games, and 84% of teenage boys do. As explored in a previous blog, online gaming comes with its own pros and cons.  It is important to consider gaming when it comes to teenagers smartphone usage. The most popular phone games can have millions of users worldwide, and some argue that they are highly addictive. Regulations are also more lax than more traditional gaming consoles or PCs.

There is also the concern of young people both creating and viewing sexualised content. A JAMA Paediatrics report found that almost 1 in 5 young people had either sent or received sexual content of themselves. As many as 12% admitted to forwarding such an image without the consent of the individual. This suggests not only that sending of this content is common, but there may be negative social pressures on teenagers to engage in it. 

There are serious issues regarding this. Not least moral and ethical, there is also a real danger of legality if the content is of an underage individual. While conversations regarding this content are extremely difficult for parents – but it is equally vital.

Many of the concerns regarding younger children do not necessarily disappear at teenage years, and it can be argued that the concerns of when to expose children to smart phones becomes increasingly complicated.

In Conclusion...

It is undeniable that smartphones are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. You know your child best, and therefore will be in the best position to decide what they access and when. Technology and children's usage of it is a concern for many parents, but it's important to remember that you are not alone in struggling with this subject. Parenting NI is here, for a listening ear and support with not only this but any parenting related issue.  

Contact Parenting NI

You can give us a call on 0808 8010 722

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“That’s not true!” – Parents Guide to Fake News

What is Fake News?

"Fake News" is not a term many of us would have been using 18 months ago. Despite the term's recent popularity, the idea of fake news is not a new one.  Governments and powerful individuals have spread information via mass communication in order to boost support for many years. However, in today's world it's increasingly difficult to tell what is real and what isn't.

It is especially hard for children who have not yet developed critical thinking skills which help them to separate truth from fiction. It is important for parents to talk to children and young people about real and fake news content. Having conversations about fake news is one of the ways parents can help combat the impact of these stories.

How Big is Our Fake News Problem?

The complex nature of what constitutes "fake news" and what is stories or ideas we don't agree with makes it almost impossible to quantify how much "fake" news children and young people see.

We do know that it is serious enough to be an issue. For example, 6.6 million people saw a video posted about the Grenfell Tower disaster, which incorrectly claimed that 42 people had died in one room (BBC, 2017). Using social media increases young people's likelihood of being exposed to fake news in one way or another.

Types of Fake News

Parody or joke sites

You could argue these are the least harmful of "Fake News" sites. Most of these sites make it pretty obvious that they are not real stories. The purpose of these stories could be to amuse people or they could annoy or "troll" a certain section of society.

While adults could identify these stories are satire, children and young people may struggle.

News Imposter Sites

These “fake news” stories make up the bulk of the fake news on the internet. These articles usually have intriguing titles to encourage you to click on them, which generates money for ads.

This type of fake news will be very familiar to you if you read real news on the internet often. Below the main story, and regularly camouflaged as real “related stories” are a list of seemingly alarming news stories.

An adult thinking critically would realise that this source was untrustworthy. However, a child or young person could easily be tricked. In addition, the most common place to see these aside from as ads are as shared stories on social media.

Fake Stories on Real Sources

This third and final type of fake news is perhaps the most insidious of all. These stories are fake but usually contain a grain of truth in order to trick otherwise reliable news websites to carry them. The purpose of these stories varies – sometimes it is a prank, others seek to influence the debate around an issue but they undermine the trust in all news sources.

These sorts of stories are the most difficult for parents to safeguard children and young people against, as one of the most reliable ways to dismantle fake news is by checking reliable news sources.

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has a handy 8-step process which is quick, easy to understand and available to help distinguish fake from real news.

1. Consider the source – is it usually reliable and have you ever heard of them before?
2. Read Beyond – read the whole story, not just the headline
3. Check the author – are they a real person?
4. Look for supporting sources – fake news is less likely to have multiple verifying sources
5. Check the date – maybe it wasn’t fake news when it was posted but is it now?
6. Is it a joke? – teach children about how some of these articles are meant to be funny, and why people make jokes like this.
7. Check your own biases.
8. Ask the Experts – a teacher, a fact-checking website or tell children to ask you as a parent!

How to Talk to Children & Young People about "Fake News"

1. Ask your children about what they have heard to find out about what they already know.

2. You might want to consider where your young person gets their news from. If they are reading it on social media tell them not to rely on it too heavily for news.

3. Try and explain things in a simple and age appropriate way as possible. Explain that sometimes people may lie and why they might do that.

4. Listen and acknowledge – children often feel misrepresented or unhappy with the news they read. It is important to listen to what they are feeling, and respond.

5. Parents can also improve children’s media literacy during everyday activities. For example, if your child or young person watches a lot of Youtube videos, ask them what they know about who created them, and why. This is a simple and easy way to build up to a conversation about “fake” content.

If you are concerned about the impact "Fake News" has on your child ask for help!
Contact Parenting NI

You can give us a call on 0808 8010 722.

Media Literacy

Ask other parents how they talk to their children about it.

Speak to Teachers

Ask teachers about how they teach critical thinking skills in school.

Look Online

Look for reliable sources like the BBC, OFCOM and others.

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