Parenting, Abington-style: Hidden dangers of interactive games for kids

Parenting, - Abington style - Adriane Heine
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My youngest child is 6 years old. She has been playing with mommy and daddy’s iPhones since she was 2. By 4, she had her own hand-me-down iPhone 4, a cast-off from one of her teenage sisters. It didn’t have actual phone service, so we considered it a large iPod, and we loaded it up with fun and educational apps like WordFriends, PBSKids Games and Toddler Sing & Play.

Before long, her go-to app was YouTube. Just like most toddlers, she was mesmerized by watching people play with toys. I didn’t understand the attraction (why she would choose unscripted play by people in their own homes over quality television programming like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood or WordWorld) but it seemed harmless enough, so she kept watching.

That is, until one day when I happened to look over her shoulder and see a video of adult hands playing with Ken and Barbie, putting them in some very questionable poses. I was horrified, but luckily, she had no clue what was going on.

I had heard of a new version of YouTube called YouTubeKids. A friend had told me all the content was screened for appropriateness. We uninstalled YouTube and replaced it with YouTubeKids and life went on.

That is, until she discovered ROBLOX. A neighborhood friend suggested she start playing and I helped her install it. It was her first interactive application on the Internet. I didn’t give it much thought as she played with her friend and other children in a variety of interactive scenarios.

Looking back, my busy schedule and never-ending to-do list got in the way of properly vetting this app. Personal electronics for children have changed a great deal since her sisters were her age, a decade ago. Back then, there were no iPhones, iPads, Kindles or tablets. The kids played PetPals on their Nintendo DS, and there was no way of interacting in games with others outside the house. The kids were overjoyed when they got a Wii one Christmas, the first video game to get them off the couch. Favorite games like Just Dance, Glee Karaoke and all of the Wii sports games were a huge hit in my living room, as they played alongside their neighborhood friends, who were actually physically present.

Back then, safety with electronics meant limiting television time, and our modest cable package meant their only option was the wonderfully safe PBS. They used the desktop computer to play games on PBSKids.org. They had a few games on CD-ROM, a favorite was a series of Harry Potter discs that drove me crazy by making the computer freeze up regularly.

Nintendo came out with its DSi, its first interactive handheld device, in about 2008, after my older children were done playing with those kinds of devices, and before my youngest was born. I wasn’t prepared for the games that 6-year-olds play today.

ROBLOX is an app with an endless and growing array of games meant for children. My daughter’s favorites are Raise a Family and Royale Highschool, games where kids role-play as parents, kids, babies or pets. They choose careers, join teams and build homes, moving around with others in these adult-like-scenarios. Much like Minecraft and Fortnite, which are popular with older children, there are millions of players worldwide. Just like being on a playground or at recess, a child can join in with her friends or make new ones.

As I started to tune in to her playing these games, my first concern was, who’s to say these are children she’s playing with? My ears pricked up one afternoon when I heard gunfire on her game. I looked over her shoulder and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. There were blood splatters coming from a Lego-like avatar next to hers. She agreed to get out of that game and not try it again.

Soon after, I happened to be sitting on the couch next to her and glanced at the iPad she was playing with. Her avatar was standing on a bed in a house she had created and some male avatar next to her was saying things no 6-year-old should hear. Luckily, she didn’t, because the chat between characters is typed and the words were beyond a first-grader’s reading level. The look on my daughter’s face, however, revealed she knew something was wrong. Together, we reported and blocked the player she had been interacting with.

That was it. With her full agreement, I went into her account and manipulated her settings. We logged into ROBLOX.com, entered Settings and went to Security. We enabled Account Restrictions, which meant she could no longer communicate with other players and could only play games administered by the ROBLOX staff. One of the themes of ROBLOX is that their content is user-generated. It is a place for people to create games. Those games, however, are not monitored or screened like those that are restricted.

Next, we went into the Privacy Settings to set restrictions on interactions and chat in the Contact Settings. Here, we were able to ensure she can only communicate with her chosen, pre-approved friends.

My daughter still likes to play but it is a much more solitary experience. Since she only has six personal friends on ROBLOX, she has no one to play with unless one of them is online. The account restrictions are far from perfect. By enabling account restrictions in order to limit the games she can play, she no longer has the ability to communicate, even with her friends, during games. We still see the running dialogue on the left-hand side of the screen, but now many of the words are replaced with a series of Xs, as profanity and inappropriate language are filtered out.

As my daughter gets older, I fear she will find this restricted form of ROBLOX boring. Older children who aren’t being monitored could easily disable these restrictions. In addition, there are no restrictions that disable friend requests from strangers, which still flow in at a steady rate.

Not all apps for kids are dangerous. One app we have discovered that has been pure fun is Facebook’s Messenger Kids. It lets her connect with friends and family that I pre-approve. Even though she doesn’t have phone service, with this app, wherever there is Wi-Fi, she can FaceTime with her friends. She can also leave them text messages, photos included if she chooses. She gets to be like her teenage sisters and use countless silly filters to decorate her pictures. Just like the teens’ popular SnapChat app, she can make herself into a bunny or a unicorn or even an angel, complete with halo. In many months of using this app, the only interaction I have had to intercept was a squabble with a classmate over whose turn it was to send a picture.

We were able to avert any major catastrophe despite our naïve approach to interactive games for young children, this time. Clearly, these apps are entertaining and engrossing for kids. Some are educational and others allow children to spend time with friends in a healthy way. Interacting online has become an integral part of our culture but, as parents, we must be vigilant. In years past, we had to worry about our children encountering predators when they left the house. Now, evil has a way to get to our kids through these games. We can’t let our guard down. For me, lesson learned. From now on, I’m taking notes and taking names.

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Parenting,

Abington style

Adriane Heine

Reach the Abington Journal newsroom at 570-587-1148 or by email at news@theabingtonjournal.com.

Reach the Abington Journal newsroom at 570-587-1148 or by email at news@theabingtonjournal.com.