The video game purchased or given to a child is rated for appropriateness for the age range. T for teen must mean that everything is ok. But beware … most online games have the built in ability to chat / text freely and some use free Internet voice chat services. So what is the big deal? Do you remember the recent prime time news stories on adult men meeting children around the United States? Currently there is a game online that is so popular that the total number of players exceeded the populations of Hong Kong, Switzerland, and many other countries.
For the most part these games are relatively safe. Some have "mature language" filters built in to block the most commonly used swear words. However these filters are easy to maneuver around by simply typing in a space, an asterisk or misspelled. These games have long play times, accumulating hours and hours, days and days of playing to reach achievements. What does this do? This allows for anyone to meet, build trust, communicate with, exchange email addresses, phone numbers or meet in person. A patient person will congratulate, accomplish tasks with a child in the game and team up versus the bad guys on the game. Guess what? The child now has a "friend".
Some of these games have what are commonly called "guilds". These are communities within the game, sort of like all of the kids in a local school are part of that community versus the other school down the road. These guilds are where people make "friends" and play with the same people over and over again. These guilds even have their own free websites (yes, these sites are provided for free). These websites allow for people within the guild to talk about what is happening inside the game and outside of the game, even allowing pictures and names to be posted for the entire world to see.
Most of the guilds need faster forms of communication to work together in group achievements. Well typing is too slow. With a headset microphone purchased for $ 20 from a local store, a fellow guild member will post the connection information and within minutes a child is talking online with …. a stranger!
One other comment: these chat channels are NOT monitored by the game manufacturer. The voice chats are not monitored either.
There are some video games that are generally free to use online. Some of these games come built into the computer. However these basic games do not allow for typing. There may be a list of drop down sentences that can be used but they do NOT allow for any exchange of information between the players. Let's take a specific example. Play the backgammon online game that came built into the computer. See if you can type anything. Now go online and download a "free" backgammon game. After creating a login name, play a game and see if you can meet someone and chat away.
Children are vulnerable to knowing who to trust and who not to trust. They are taught very young to be wary of strangers walking around town. But when did you ever discuss talking to strangers online?
Need a solution? Go on the side of safety and your instinct. Let kids be kids. Be the responsible one and do not let them brow beat you into the latest game that EVERYONE is playing. Let them play football down the street with people you know. Let them play video games on a console game where they can not talk to other people around the world. Or have them read a book. =)