Life before March 2020 was a very different life to the one we are all living now. Almost overnight, everyone in the UK was housebound for a few weeks. Now that life has returned to some basic level of normality, we have all had to adjust to a world dealing with a global pandemic.
As a married father with two young children (eight and one-and-a-half years old at the time), the idea of working from home was both novel and scary. Sure, we didn’t have to do the school run, and travelling from work meant leaving the back door and walking to the end of the garden into my office. But all of our lives were now operating under one roof, something I don’t think many of us were quite prepared for!
The biggest thing that my children suffered from throughout lockdown was the lack of social interaction. My eight-year-old coped well for a while, but he eventually started to struggle. Seeing family and friends is important to him, as it is to all of us. But Mum and Dad still had to work and manage the house, as well as attend to his little brother who was fast approaching the terrible twos stage.
Like his Dad though, he enjoys playing computer games. This kept him entertained, but only for so long. That was until he found out his closest friends at school also enjoyed computer games. As luck would have it, they also enjoyed the same computer games, and on the same consoles.
Their parents and I soon got together on WhatsApp to arrange some online meetups for them over Houseparty, a fairly popular voice and communication app. What started as a once in a while occasion become a daily event. To this day, they meet almost daily for no more than two hours in an afternoon or evening, possibly more over the weekend with frequent breaks. This meant Mum and Dad could carry on with their day while my son played happily with his friends.
Then something happened – his little brother started to take note of this thing called “the internet”. He soon learnt that he could watch internet videos on Mummy or Daddy’s mobile phone. Before we knew it, he was able to “swipe” the menu up on a mobile phone, tap “Netflix” or “YouTube” and watch his kids’ videos whenever he was able to. Soon after, we decided to install some educational games targeted towards his age group that he could play with us, or by himself when we were too busy.
The internet, online gaming and mobile apps had now become a big part of their lockdown lives. It continues to play a big part in their lives now, and will no doubt do so in the future too.
Rewind a few years, and the advice was not to allow your children to play online games for too long, in fear of becoming addicted to them. In fact, “Video Game Addiction” was classified as a mental health disorder. As a lifelong advocate of the good that gaming can do, imagine my delight when the World Health Organisation published advice that effectively contradicted this – playing computer games can actually do good during the pandemic.
Gaming CAN be for good, and in the case of my children, it has kept them entertained, learning, talking and interacting with their friends. And let’s face it – my generation and preceding ones have grown up in a world of gaming, an industry that exploded with the advent of the internet and is now worth billions. Suffice to say, gaming is here to stay.
Like a lot of services that rely on the internet, there are clearly risks. As parents allowing our children to play on the internet, we have to have some level of understanding on how it works to best ensure their safety. Thankfully, a lot of the things we can do to make sure they are safe and happy playing are straightforward to do, and many of the online services offer security safeguards to ensure online safety.
As a gamer and internet enthusiast myself, and a father to a new generation of gamers, here are my top tips to ensure your children have a great (and safe) time gaming online:
- Watch the game your child is playing. Watching what they are playing will give you a good understanding of what they are doing and how they are interacting with other players. If you are ever unsure of what you are seeing, ask them about it.
- Play with them! OK, not everyone enjoys playing computer games, I understand this. Sometimes as parents though, we have to do something we don’t enjoy but your child does, right? It’s OK to pick up the game and join them. Then you really will get a feel for the type of game they are playing and what is involved, and perhaps get a better understanding on how online gaming works. You never know, you may even end up enjoying it!
- Read about the game and the platform your child is playing on. Gaming is not as simple as it once was. When I was a child, my Dad would buy me a new console for Christmas. It was a case of plugging it into the back of the TV, slotting the game in, and picking up the controller to play. Nowadays, there are various consoles, devices and various digital marketplaces where you can download and play games from, all of which are connected to the internet. Try to keep your child on one platform or console so that you only have to learn how that platform or console works in terms of security, communication, but also payment options and protection.
- Watch and listen to them communicate – there are also a number of apps that provide text and voice communication. If they are playing with friends, try to limit their communication on one platform, and make sure they ask you first to allow someone else to join their “chat room” or “chat server”. If your child wants to use a different app, be sure that they ask for your permission first. It is a good idea to check with their parents if it is OK to use a different app. Also, find out more about how communication works, including how to add friends and contacts. It might even be worth creating an account yourself and join them so you can familiarise yourself with the app.
- If a service offers it, enable payment protection against “unwanted payments” – My eldest son once purchased an entire digital catalogue of the Batman Animated Series without me knowing – that was until I got the email receipt. It was my own fault – I gave him the controller to choose what he wanted to watch. Thankfully, not only was I able to get those refunded, but I was also informed that I could add a “passcode” for future purchases. If the service offers this or some other form of protection against unwanted payments, make sure you enable it.
- Limit hours and enforce break times – Screen time is still screen time and performs best when played in what I like to call ‘sessions’. My policy is no more than two hours, or fifteen-minute breaks every hour if more than two hours. This allows for a good balance between sitting and playing games and rest, relaxation and exercise.
Be sure to read Get Safe Online’s advice on gaming and safeguarding children online too. There are resources there that will help you make the right choices for you and your children. I will also be talking in the Gaming4Good webinars about my experience as a parent during lockdown, how online gaming influenced my childrens behaviour and how it helped them get through it. You can register to attend the webinars here.
And remember – gl hf*!
*Good Luck, Have Fun – a popular gaming acronym which always sets a pleasant tone at the start of any game 😊
Mathew Hasker is the Digital Content Manager for Get Safe Online, a parent, gamer, musician and writer