Online gaming is fun, and can provide entertainment or allow you to connect with others. It covers a broad range of entertainment; from simple games you play against the service (such as Solitaire), to two person games such as chess and checkers that you play with a friend or against the service, and to highly interactive games that you can play with thousands of people at a time in enormous fantasy worlds.  Being alert to potential risks of online gaming helps you keep the fun in the games.

Before you dive into the world of online gaming there are some basic safety issues to consider:

  1. Understand the game’s rating, and review the site’s Terms and Conditions to understand what types of behavior they allow as well as their policies and practices for monitoring behavior and responding to abuse. 
  2. Create safe nicknames, usernames, and gamer tags. These should not include any personally identifiable information.
  3. For children, establish family rules for game playing. These may include how much time they can spend gaming, the types of games that are allowed to play, who they are allowed to game with (just friends, or anyone online), as well as the information that may and may not be shared if they don’t know the other players – including name, photos, location, e-mail address, and so on.
    • If young children play with strangers the device should be placed somewhere that allows you to periodically monitor their interactions.
    • For younger kids, keep an eye on chats and messages they receive and encourage them to let you know if anything inappropriate occurs, including requests for their real names or location.
    • Report any abuse and, where possible, block the abuser from further contact.
  4. Be particularly cautious of voice interaction – especially for younger children. Many services provide voice altering technologies which may allow criminals to mask their identity.
  5. Be very cautious about meeting or allowing your child to meet someone you have only met through online gaming. Keep first meetings short and insist the meeting occur in a public place during a busy time of day with people present. Let people know where you are going and when to expect a call from you. Always bring a cell phone.
  6. Understand that some gamers are very poor sports when they lose, and some are cyberbullies. If you experience anyone who is insulting or abusive block further contact and notify the service. 


Selecting a safe gaming site

If you play online or download games from reputable sites such as Yahoo! Games, MSN Zones, and AOL Games you run very little risk of any harm. Proven sites are not likely to give your machine malware problems or abuse your personal information. These sites also make a clear distinction between what they provide for free (without hidden clauses or malware threats) and which games you pay for. If you use a less well-known site, check the reputation and fine print first.

Spam that offers free games will ask for you to fill out an extensive profile that will be resold and abused. These sites may also download malware to your computer. This is a particularly effective type of spam for younger users, so help them be aware of these scams.

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Console games and mobile games

Console games come in two forms: those that are handheld (Gameboy, PS2, and so on), and those that sit in your home and plug into a TV or other display (Xbox, Wii, Playstation, and so on). In the last few years, connectivity with the Internet has allowed games and game demos to be downloaded directly from the Internet. If a handheld device is Bluetooth enabled (can interact with other devices around it) it will make contact with other devices in the vicinity. This may put you or your child in contact with strangers, so you may need to take precautions.

Mobile games that come preinstalled on mobile phones or are downloaded for a fee are mostly single player so the risk of encountering a stranger is low, but be sure you are downloading from a reputable site, as mobile viruses are an increasing threat.

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Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG's)

Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG’s) often place huge numbers of gamers in a single environment (popular games have thousands of users online at any time). Some MMOGs are not games as much as virtual worlds. MMOG’s are usually subscription services and offer a consistent virtual ‘universe’ where the game continues whether or not any specific gamer is playing. Though many conversations are monitored by others in the game, profanity, harassment and bullying, grooming, other predatory interactions, and exposure to adult content may occur.

Be careful about what personal information you expose to other gamers, just as with any online interaction. Many sites offer points, tokens, extra lives, gifts, and currency you can trade or give to others. Gift giving in any of these forms can be a fun way to interact with friends and strangers, however this is also a tactic used by predators to befriend and groom victims. Pedophiles begin by ‘helping’ a child or teen with the game, giving tips on how to succeed, chatting and frequently giving gifts to gain their trust. Then the predator tries to engage in that next level of contact that takes them from the cyber world to the physical world, where the first physical world contact is typically via cell phone.

It is critical to teach young people how to appropriately interact and protect their personal information while gaming.

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Online gambling

We are living in a society where legalized gambling is not only socially acceptable, but it is widely promoted and highly visible. However online gambling is illegal in the United States. Still, more than a million young people and millions of adults are gambling online on a regular basis.

To help identify when gambling has become an addiction, whether online or offline, review the following list of questions:

Is gambling the most exciting activity in your life?
Do you miss school, work, activities, or other events due to gambling?
Has anyone expressed concern about your gambling?
Do you lie to your friends or family about your gambling?
Do you borrow money to gamble?
Have you sold personal belongings to get money to gamble?
Have you stolen from your family, friends, or employer to gamble or to pay back gambling debts?
After losing, do you try to win your money back by gambling?
Are you preoccupied with thoughts of gambling?
Have you tried to stop gambling but can't?

Parents should have frank conversations to help children understand the risks associated with online gambling, and gambling in general. There needs to be clear discussions about the potential gambling has for addiction – including all the costs, financial and otherwise, that addiction can entail.

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