There are sites that are fun and safe for kids to
visit, Parry Aftab notes. Plus, WiredSafety.org lists its top kid gaming sites.
Keep Personal Info Private
Yet, interactive gaming is what kids and teens enjoy the most. And what used to be a solitary and isolating activity is now a community and social activity. Dr. Deanna Guy, a pediatrician with Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., and an expert on children and the Internet, believes that community gaming is far healthier than solo computer gaming. But she has her concerns about children engaging in voice chat with strangers before they're educated in online safety and "stranger danger." From her years as "KidDoc" for AOL's parenting channel, Dr. Guy realized that people let their guard down when chatting online. She fears that the precautions used by children in typed chat may not apply for long when voices are concerned. "Once a child is talking to someone, it's difficult to convince them not to give out their telephone number. After all, what's the difference between chatting on a computer microphone wearing a headset and on a telephone receiver? To a child or teenager, there's little difference."
But from an Internet safety and privacy viewpoint, there are serious differences. A telephone number can often lead to a name and address. All you need to do is visit switchboard.com and put in the telephone number. A reverse search often will disclose the name and address linked to the telephone number. A quick visit to Mapquest then gives you a map to the gamer's door. In addition, once armed with the telephone number, anyone can reach out whenever they choose to communicate with the gamer.
As entertaining as interactive gaming is, parents should be aware that their children can speak, using their own voice, with strangers online. Xbox comes with built-in parental controls which prevent the child from using voice chat until the parent feels they're able to handle it safely. They need to be aware that networked gaming devices offer voice chat. They also need to understand that many other interactive voiced games can be accessed online using an ordinary headset.
But attempting to ignore the new technologies won't help. Our children and teens will be using them, if not at home then at their friends' houses. The old adage of keeping the computer in a central location doesn't cut it when their gaming consoles are voice-enabled and our children carry their own text-messaging devices and cell phones. Our children and teens need to be taught how to talk, safely, with strangers and what to do when things go wrong. Luckily, Microsoft has thought ahead and given parents and the gamers the tools they need for a safe and fun interactive gaming experience.
The only interactive live voice game device that WiredSafety has approved is Xbox. None of the others we reviewed contain the safety features and the report functions that are essential to a safe and private interactive gaming experience. However, WiredSafety.org recommends that Xbox live be reserved for children over 12, and that parents closely supervise the live chat experience and, until they're sure their children are ready for the verbal assault many games engender, set the parental controls to block live voice chat. While predators are still rare in the intense activity of a challenging game, as more inexperienced gamers and younger gamers begin to use the voice chats, it's expected that predators will become a bigger problem.
The best way to avoid online predators is to make sure your children know they can come to you if things go wrong without worrying that you will overreact and throw the game console out with the bathwater. Report anyone that violates the terms of service, and make sure that Microsoft knows of any improper communications with your child.
Finally, the worst that can happen in a game is that someone says something that hurts your child's feelings or uses language that is inappropriate for children. The old saying "stick and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you" applies in this case. The real dangers are found offline--if your children agree to meet someone in real life or in doing something in real life. Make sure that they understand the real risks of meeting Internet strangers offline. And being open-minded if they come to you and ask for you to go with them to meet their new online friend is the secret to making sure they consult with you first. Remember that the cute 14-year-old boy they want to meet in real life may not be cute, may not be 14, and may not be a boy.
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