Controlling Tech Use is Not Effective, But Coaching Is the Answer April 10, 2019 10:55

Training Children For Stranger Danger in Their Video Games

Spring is a perfect time for children to go to local parks and play outdoors, yet many parents fear allowing their children to do so. The media has led parents to believe that it is not safe out there. The fact is your children are better equipped for playing outdoors than I was as a child in the 1950’s. The same threats existed then as do today, yet I was not aware of how to handle the stranger who asked me to get in the car and show him where the nearest gas station was. No one had prepared me for this type of person. Today, our children know about “Stranger Danger.” They know what to do if someone approaches them.

One might  think children are safer in their bedrooms than at the park. If the children have internet connection and have discovered games to play, they are not prepared for the strangers in disguise who might appear in their games. In many of the games I explored, the strangers are not as visible as my stranger in the car was to me. They may initially appear as a kind and caring friend that are listed as their age, and quickly shift their tone when they determine the player is ripe for bullying. Children have no idea that the person they call their friend in the game is someone my age, 60. To understand the game, I easily signed up and lied that I was an eight year old to gain access to the game and appear as young person the child's own age. If I can do it, so can people with different goals. My was to learn the game. Other's might have ulterior motives. One way or the other, young children may not be equipped to deal with or combat potential bullying. 

Many games’ sole purpose is to manipulate the children into spending money, and bullying is one tactic that I found in my game playing. I have been working with five girls who are playing the same game to learn more about what they are experiencing. One of my students shared that she was bullied by a friend and called a noob. This is a poor person. The friend was not someone she really knew, but someone who had been nice to her in the game for the past year. Suddenly, she was being bullied to buy new clothes. She caved to the bullying and had a panic attack that night, because she knew her parents would find out she played the game. The girls discussed having the same thing happen to them and they came up with things they could say to someone bullying them in the future. "I'll just tell them I like my clothes and if they don't like it, that's their problem."  Having a strategy made the students feel much better. Whether it is in real life or a game that feels like real life to them, young children need to be prepared for potential bullying, and they will need to know what to say if it does. 

One very popular game eight and nine-year-olds are playing uses different forms of manipulation to keep children in the game. They are offered free things if they play each day. They earn internet currency for doing simple tasks, but it is not enough to buy the things offered for purchase. Sharing this information with your children before they play will help them recognize what the game is doing to get them to want to make a purchase. Play the game with them and ask them to point out all the ways the game is asking for real money. Awareness is the first step in dealing with Internet Stranger Danger. 

Games are designed to addict. Children are not aware of how playing games are impacting their brains in unhealthy ways, nor are their parents. In the UK, Prince Charles is calling for a ban on Fortnight because he says, “It is created to addict the users.” The creators of many games use functional MRI’s  to determine if the part of the brain associated with pleasure is activated with the desired outcome of hooking the player into the game. They are making sure they are arousing the fight or flight response to achieve the desired respiration level. If they don’t get the right response, they go back and add components to the game until they reach the desired results: to addict the user. Children playing this game can be put into a state of activation of those areas of the brain connected to pleasure and reward. Knowing the potential for arousal and addictive behavior is important for parents and children. Bringing children's attention to how this arousal and reward might feel when they are playing the game is another step parents can take to coach their children on how to control their own game use. Banning the game would be nice, but it won’t stop the game makers from coming up with a different game that will do the same thing.

I am a realist. Computers, the internet, and games are here to stay.

Just like not all who gamble become gamblers, not all children who play video games will become addicted. But every person who has access to devices needs to learn how to manage them. The games young children are playing are a gateway to other forms of social media. The devices have too many components that make it easy to eventually become addicted to texting, checking emails, or seeing how friends are doing and living vicariously. Parents are restricting the use of their children’s devices, but that is not enough. We need to train children to manage their own use while they are playing games at home, so they can manage it when no one is around to do so and there is more to draw their attraction.  

I do not believe the answer is in total parent control, but in training children to control the devices instead of the devices controlling them.

 You may be thinking, it isn’t possible to train young children to stop playing. This belief is selling our children short. If they can learn how to navigate to a game on the internet, they can learn to monitor their own use.

It won’t come naturally to young children, because their prefrontal lobes are not fully developed and that is where planning occurs. But they can be trained to do it. The following are coaching points for parents:

  1. Help your children understand the chemical changes that occur during game playing.

  2. Identify the feelings that these changes present.

  3. Recognize the brains need for breaks after playing games before they try to do their homework or study for tests .

  4. Explain the neuroscience behind learning and memory and the impact the games have on those brain functions.

  5. Teach them a time management plan, so they can schedule their device use. They can learn to plan for the use of their devices when they will learn their brains need breaks, and they will have to schedule for those breaks.

  6. Teens can learn to leave a message for all their friends that they will not be available by text, phone, or email for a specific amount of time and then lock their phones in another room.

  7. Train your children to stop their own play, notice the feelings the game creates to pull them back in, and how to shift back to a normal state, so they can stop playing.

  8. Knowing the motives of game makers helps students recognize when the game is trying to control them, which makes it easier for them to resist the offers. They learn that, if they are to play, they must control the game, instead of letting the game control them. 

Next Blog: Teaching Children to Manage the Internet Use Time