My 14-year-old daughter recently said she wanted to learn driving. But her first lessons would be through an online game. As a mother and a person from the legal fraternity, I am vehemently against underage driving. I am also cautious about exposing my teenager to online games which may impact her negatively. But I was more than happy to let her play this game because it would teach her three basic things – patience, alertness and the pitfalls of dangerous driving – without putting her in any danger.
But not all online games are safe for children. I have seen babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers playing dangerous games online, probably introduced to them by their own parents. These games include action-oriented games and shooting and car racing games. Parents usually use the games to keep their children from troubling them, little realising that they can be addictive and dangerous.
Dangerous consequences of online games
- Psychological effects: Some action games could affect the child psychologically. We all know about the Blue Whale challenge, which induced children to take up dangerous tasks that culminated in suicide. But there are other games considered ‘kiddish’, such as the Ninja games, which also affect the child psychologically. In these games, the child learns to beat up other children or even pets who may pose a ‘disturbance’ to him. These games do not sensitise the child to the impact of physically hurting others, including animals. So, she runs the risk of becoming indifferent to the physical pain of others. She may, in fact, start taking sadistic pleasure in seeing others in pain because that is what the protagonists in online action games ‘enjoy’ after winning battles. I have seen several children hurting their pet dogs or even other domestic animals like cows because they thought of these animals as playmates donning the role of the ‘enemy’.
- Dangers of aping characters: These action-oriented games don’t just cause children to behave cruelly to others; they put the gamers themselves at risk. Watch carefully to see whether your child is trying to jump from tables or climb on the balcony walls or grilles. These can be a signal that he is trying to imitate his ‘hero’ who may run across jungles, climb high-rise buildings and race through busy roads to ‘destroy evil’. These ‘heroes’ never get hurt. Even if they do, their automated body mechanisms heal those wounds within seconds. Often, children believe they too have such inbuilt mechanisms which will protect them from injury.
- Exposure to adult content: But it is not only the online action games that parents should worry about. There are other online games like The Sims, the dangers of which are not known much. The Sims is a life simulation video game series in which a player can create avatars and make them act as he wants. The characters so created can do good things like serving as doctors. They can also do ‘adult stuff’ like having sexual relationships with other characters or give birth to babies. To children these videos, shown through ‘games’, could come as a shock. And these Sims videos are easily available on YouTube with most of them not offering the ‘blocked for children’ option. In such cases, a parent definitely needs to monitor not only what the child is playing but also what he is watching.
- Emotional dependence: What is more worrying is, when given as a pacifier, a child may see the games as her sole ‘friends’. If her parents normally tell her to play these to keep her quiet and ensure she doesn’t disturb others, she slowly gets hooked to them. She also grows emotionally dependent on the devices she uses to play the games and may become extremely possessive about them. She may even damage them by operating them as she likes. There is also the risk of her buying games secretly.
A horrific example
Not very long ago, one of my friends told me that her teenage son’s friend had died in a tragic road accident. And no, the accident was not caused by a speeding vehicle driven by someone else. The boy had tried to imitate a stunt he had seen in an online bike game. Unlike the online biker who could get up and out of the accident spot, the boy never did get up from the pool of blood in which he lay.
Tips to keep children safe
- Never give your phone as a pacifier to your toddler. If you are on a journey, point out the trees, roads and people you pass. He will soon learn to enjoy them more.
- Check the app stores on your phone. Do not install violent action-oriented games.
- Don’t allow your child to download games without permission. Strictly tell him he cannot use others’ devices without their permission and that includes yours and your spouse’s.
- Don’t rush to buy an electronic device for your child. This includes buying a phone for her when she is too young to understand how to handle it properly. Rely on the computer science classes in school to teach your child the good and bad implications of the computer and how to use it properly. Your child will herself share innovative and positive ideas on computer science with you at a later stage. She will then be partly ready for a phone. But again, don’t stop monitoring her online.
- Remember, not everything online is bad. Encourage your child to learn positive things like scientific experiments, cooking simple dishes, tricks to recycle old clothes or even how to organise rooms and cupboards. You will see him quickly grow into a responsible netizen.
- Before leaving your child alone with a game, try it out yourself. Remember how you used to taste the food before giving it to her when you were introducing her to solid food? Play that role again. In the process, you will develop a wonderful bond with your child!
Here’s to your keeping your little one safe in the world of online games!
Dr Debarati Halder is the Honorary Managing Director of the Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling (www.cybervictims.org). She is also working as Professor & Head of the Department of Research, Unitedworld School of Law, Karnavati University, Gandhinagar, Gujarat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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