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Parliament cannot fully protect children from dangers of online gaming. Companies and parents must fulfil their duties too

4 min read

From age verification to reporting mechanisms and screen time directives, Nigel Huddleston explores ways government and game developers can work together to prioritise child safety

The internet has brought many benefits but also challenges as governments, industry and the public adapt their behaviours and attitudes in an increasingly online world. The UK government wishes to create an environment in which businesses can thrive while also ensuring that the UK is the safest place to be online. This is no easy task as we are still in the early stages of the digital era. Offerings, attitudes and policies are still evolving.

People go online for a variety of reasons: to transact, to communicate, to be educated, informed and entertained. While it is increasingly recognised that what is unacceptable offline is unacceptable online, challenges remain with regard to defining what is and isn’t ‘appropriate content’ and who should be responsible for enabling or restricting access to different types of content.

The recent debate over online games – driven in part by the international success of Fortnite – has ignited the discussion around some of these challenges. The debate raises both moral and practical issues, particularly about the wellbeing of children. As stories of children excessively and compulsively playing games like Fortnite multiply (with one nine-year-old child apparently choosing to wet herself rather than leave the game), it is important for all stakeholders – including government – to consider the impact of online games on children’s welfare.

This is one of many issues that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) looked at in its response to a consultation on the Internet Safety Strategy. The department considered the responsibilities of companies to their users, the use of technical solutions to prevent online harms and the government’s role in supporting parents and users in being safe online.

The most obvious challenge of online games is the compulsive habits that they encourage. In Fortnite, for example, games last for 20 minutes and there is ultimately only one winner. This means that the time investment in starting a new game seems relatively low but there is a repeated psychological incentive in 99 of the 100 players (the losers) to try again and play until they win. Many players will never win a game, but the competitive instinct created by failure and the short game time encourages them to play one game after another. Games across genres follow this basic cyclical model.

This is reminiscent of the impact of gambling – repeated losses incentivising repeated investment, only the investment in this case is time rather than money. The Government recognised this in the gambling industry and created the Gambling Commission to work with the industry to help it become more responsible and create safer environments. There is onus now on industries and parents to look at how to create similarly safe environments for children playing games and the Government is open to equipping them to be best placed to do so.

Compulsive habits are, in themselves, clearly worrying. But there is also concern about the environments that children are excessively inhabiting. There is no process of age verification in many online games and use of violent games by young children is widespread. This problem was seen starkly with the rise in popularity of the Call of Duty games, which tended to have age ratings of 16+ but were often played by very young children. Age verification in certain online spaces is something that could therefore be useful in protecting younger children.

Children on online games can also be exposed to abusive language and behaviour when connected to other players by microphone. Report mechanisms for inappropriate conduct therefore also need to be looked at by game developers and perhaps more clearly signposted by parents. Of course, responsibility for monitoring the purchases of “microtransactions” in some games also falls largely with parents as guardians and cardholders.

The Government cannot necessarily legislate to completely protect children from all of the dangers of online gaming, but it can lead a public discussion and equip parents and companies with the tools they need to prioritise child safety and take their responsibilities seriously. A wider Internet Safety Strategy is being formulated and measures like screen time directives are being looked at, however much of the responsibility must fall on gaming companies and parents to fulfil their duties in protecting vulnerable children against compulsive habits and abuse in online gaming. 

Nigel Huddleston is Conservative MP for Mid Worcestershire

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