Are Your Kids Safe When Gaming Online?
After HBO recently launched the hit series “The Last of Us,” new fans flocked online to play the game on which the show is based. At the same time, hackers created fake websites offering free downloads of the game for PC. But instead of a free game, players ended up downloading malware that stole their personal data [*].
The popularity of online gaming exploded during the pandemic — and so did the number of hackers targeting gamers. According to the most recent data [*]:
There were over 5.8 million instances of malware and other viruses disguised as popular games last year — a 66% increase from the year before.
For families with children, the risks of gaming online go beyond downloading harmful files. Online gaming can expose children to cyberbullies, online predators, inappropriate content, and worse.
In this guide, we’ll cover the main risks of online gaming for kids, how to keep your family safe when gaming online, and how to decide if a game is safe (and appropriate) for your child.
What Are the Risks of Online Gaming?
Online gaming comes with a wide range of risks — from harassment to financial fraud, identity theft, and cybercrime. With American children spending upwards of 190 minutes a day playing online games, their chances of running into scammers are at an all-time high [*].
Here are eight of the greatest risks of online gaming that every parent should know:
- Cyberbullying, harassment, and doxxing. Any multiplayer game opens up the opportunity for harassment. What may start innocently can quickly become toxic and dangerous. Some players may even “dox” others by publishing sensitive information, photos, or videos about them publicly.
- Malware and viruses. Downloading games from lesser-known sites, or opening files sent by other gamers, can infect your devices with dangerous malware or other viruses.
- Identity theft. Interactions with anonymous online gamers can put your family at risk of child identity theft. Scammers pose as friends or other kids in order to steal sensitive information about your children or family.
- Phishing attacks and account takeovers. One in five online gamers say they’ve been hacked in the last year [*]. Hackers target childrens’ game accounts with phishing messages or other sophisticated attacks in order to access in-game currencies and connected credit cards, or to launch attacks on other players.
- Online predators. Online games can expose people to cyberstalkers who use the seemingly harmless game environment to manipulate them. In some cases, cyberstalking can escalate to real-world stalking.
- Financial scams. Many online gaming communities include advanced in-game economies through which players buy and trade digital goods with real money. Cybercriminals prey on younger, more inexperienced players to earn money illicitly.
- Mature content. Several high-profile video game franchises are known for their violence and sexual imagery. Some gaming communities — even ones made for young children — modify existing games (“modding”) to make them more explicit.
- Excessive gaming. While gaming is a mostly safe hobby, children don’t always have the emotional maturity to limit their time playing. In the worst cases, excessive gaming can impact everything from social development to sleep patterns and school grades.
How To Keep Your Kids Safe When Playing Online Games
- Protect your online accounts with strong passwords and 2FA
- Research games together (and stick with known publishers)
- Use Safe Gaming tools to alert you to bullying or predators
- Update your console’s security and parental controls settings
- Limit the personal information your kids share
- Protect your devices with antivirus software
- Choose gift or credit cards for in-app payments
- Enable account notifications to get alerted to direct messages
- Use voice chat with speakers, not headphones
- Use a VPN when gaming online
- Set time limits for online and mobile games
Parents who are active in their childrens’ gaming experiences are better equipped to keep them safe. Here are a few crucial online safety tips that can help keep your kids safe while gaming:
1. Protect your online accounts with strong passwords and 2FA
Strong passwords protect your kids’ accounts from hackers who may try to gain access to sensitive information or linked payment methods (like your credit card).
For added security, enable two-factor authentication (2FA). This is an additional security measure that requires a secondary code when logging in to your account (usually a one-time-use code sent to your mobile device).
How to secure your kids’ gaming accounts:
- Choose a strong, unique password for every account. Each account should have its own password of at least 10 characters — including numbers, symbols, and upper and lower case letters. Consider using a memorable phrase like “LeBr0nIsTheGreate$t.”
- Enable 2FA on all gaming accounts. Two-factor authentication makes it much harder for hackers to break into your kids’ accounts, and may prevent hackers from making unauthorized payments. If possible, set up 2FA on your own phone or mobile device so that you know when someone is signing in to your child’s account.
- Talk to your child about password security. Children should know the basics of internet safety — especially not to share their passwords with anyone. This includes friends, tech support, and authority figures.
2. Research games together (and stick with known publishers)
Parents can’t protect their kids online without knowing what games they are playing. One of the best ways to protect kids from harmful content, cyberbullying, and malware risks is to pay attention to the origin of the games themselves.
All legitimate gaming platforms provide users with ratings and content descriptions of the games they host. Additionally, exploiting pirated or “cracked” versions of games is one of the main ways that hackers can trick players into installing malware.
How to reduce risks when researching games:
- Watch gameplay videos together. You can find reviews and gameplay footage online for almost any game in the world. Check popular YouTube channels or Switch streams to see what the games are like.
- Stick to well-known publishers and online stores. The world’s top 25 video game publishers include household names like Sony, Microsoft, Apple, and Nintendo. Big publishers have to follow a much more rigorous approval process than small-scale indie developers, making their titles more trustworthy. When it comes to purchasing games, Steam and Epic Games are two of the most popular stores. Mobile platforms like Android and iOS also sell games through their official app stores.
- Never use torrent sites to download games. No legitimate major game publisher uses torrents to distribute games. Don’t run game files downloaded from peer-to-peer torrenting websites.
💡 Related: What Are Steam Gift Card Scams (and How To Avoid Them) →
3. Use Safe Gaming tools to alert you to bullying or predators
It’s not always possible to monitor how your kids play games and interact with people online.
Every Aura family plan includes Safe Gaming tools that can monitor text and voice conversations in hundreds of PC games and alert you if someone is harassing or targeting your kids. You can try Aura free for 14 days and see if it’s right for your family.
4. Update your gaming console’s security and parental controls settings
Every gaming console includes security and parental controls settings to limit what your kids can play — but they’re not all enabled automatically. By default, the Nintendo Switch comes with strict security settings, while Sony Playstation and Microsoft Xbox consoles are more lax out of the box.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) provides Tools for Parents that include complete instructions on how to configure security and content settings on individual consoles.
How to update your console or gaming platform’s security settings:
- Sony Playstation 5. From the PS5 home menu, select Settings. Go to Family and Parental Controls and select Family Management. From here, you can set content filters and communication settings for individual PS5 users.
- Microsoft Xbox and Windows PC. Open the Xbox Family Settings App. Create an account for your child. Once it’s ready, select the Settings symbol. From here, you can manage that account’s online communications and restrict it from adding new friends without your approval.
- Nintendo Switch. Go to System Settings, select Parental Controls, and click on Use This Console. From here, you can restrict players from downloading adult content or communicating with others online.
- Valve Steam. Log in to Steam using your child’s account and open the Settings menu. Go to the Family tab and click on Family View. Choose the content and features to which that account should have access, and lock with a PIN code.
5. Limit the personal information your kids share (such as in their gamertags)
Kids who share personal details with other gamers — even by simply using their real names or identifying data in their gamertags — can put themselves at risk of hacking, identity theft, or harassment.
Make sure your kids are playing anonymously and don’t share sensitive information with other players.
Best practices for protecting your privacy while gaming online:
- Use a unique and anonymous gamertag. A good gamertag only needs to be memorable. Don’t include personal information like your name or place of origin.
- Don’t use the same gamertag across services. If a gamertag is recognizable from a social media platform or other website, it may lead to real-life information about the player behind the name.
- Be careful even when playing with personal friends. Friends are accustomed to calling each other by their names, not their gamertags. A stranger could overhear this information and use it to target your child online.
💡 Related: Is Roblox Safe For Kids? 2023 Guide For Parents →
6. Protect your devices with antivirus software
Downloading video games from reputable platforms reduces malware risks, but it doesn’t eliminate them. Google constantly removes malware-containing games from the Android store, but these games can still reach hundreds of thousands of users before they’re taken down [*].
A reputable antivirus solution can protect all of your devices from malware and other viruses — whether from a fake online game, phishing attack, or something else.
For example, Aura’s antivirus software (which is included in every Aura plan) works on PC, Mac, and Android smartphones and tablets to constantly scan for malware.
7. Choose gift or credit cards for in-app payments (or block them)
Any game that features in-game purchases (such as loot boxes) carries additional risks. Whether you want to limit your children’s spending or prevent financial fraud if their accounts are compromised, it’s smart to use a safer payment method, such as platform-specific gift cards.
This way, if your account is compromised, scammers won’t get access to your credit card or bank account.
Not all games support in-app payment through gift cards, though. If you have to sign up with a valid credit or debit card, consider opening a bank account strictly for this purpose.
How to reduce the risk of credit card fraud with in-app purchases:
- Learn about different gaming payment models. Some popular games are free-to-play, like Fortnite, while others require a one-time payment or monthly subscription. Understand how the game makes money so that you know your exposure.
- Don’t let gaming platforms save your card data. Instead, use a platform-specific gift card that you can reload, or manually enter your card information each time your child wants to make a purchase.
- Check your statements regularly and look for unrecognized charges. Aura’s credit and transaction monitoring service can alert you in near real-time if someone is using your card or personal information.
8. Enable account notifications to get alerted to direct messages
Some gaming platforms will alert parents when their children receive direct messages from other gamers. This can give parents early warning if an online relationship takes a troubling turn.
However, these tools won’t tell you if your children receive messages off of their gaming platforms — for example on Discord. Instead, you’ll want to set up account notifications across all of the places where they chat with gamers.
How to turn on account direct message notifications:
- Discord. Discord allows users to get mobile push notifications when they receive a DM. Start by downloading the Discord mobile app on your phone and registering it to your child’s account. On the PC, right-click on the servers your child participates in, and check “Enable Push Notifications.”
- Steam. Steam doesn’t allow users to receive direct message notifications outside of the platform itself. However, you can still see your child’s messages by installing the mobile app on your phone. Log in with your child’s account, and enable notifications on your mobile device.
- Roblox. Roblox allows parents to set account restrictions for kids, including blocking in-app messages. Parents can also filter their children’s chat messages to remove inappropriate content before kids can see it.
💡 Related: Is Discord Safe For Kids? A Quickstart Guide For Parents →
9. Use voice chat with speakers, not headphones
Unfortunately, most games don’t provide parents any way of monitoring their children’s in-game conversations — especially because many players prefer to talk to each other over voice chat (instead of text).
If your child uses headphones when talking to other gamers, you won’t be able to hear the other half of the conversation. Consider having your child play using speakers, so that you can hear the content of their conversations online.
10. Use a VPN when gaming online
Virtual private networks (VPNs) anonymize and encrypt the data you send over the internet. This means hackers can’t spy on your kids, discover their location, or hack their IP address.
Many multiplayer games show the geographic location of their players. Usually, this information is limited to the country from which users connect. However, if hackers collect that player’s IP address, they could find out where the player actually lives.
Some hackers have used this information to make prank phone calls to emergency police services, telling them to raid other gamers’ homes with a SWAT team [*].
11. Set time limits for online and mobile games
Without time limits, online gaming can become a distraction for your child – especially for kids who already deal with attention-deficit disorders. A gaming fixation can quickly develop into addictive behavior, as kids ignore important parts of their lives so they can keep playing.
It’s important for parents to monitor and regulate the time their children spend playing games online — even when they’re out of the house.
Here are a few ways you can help your kids spend less time playing online games:
- Only allow gaming during specific times of the day. This works when you can actively supervise your child during the day, but it can be hard to enforce when you (or your child) are away from home.
- Use parental controls to monitor their gaming time. Aura’s parental controls let parents know how much time kids spend playing online games, set time limits on mobile games, and even turn off the internet on their child’s device.
How To Decide If an Online Game Is Safe for Your Kids
Even if you don’t actually play games with your child, your input is critical to guiding the gaming experience itself. Pay close attention to the games your children are interested in, and ask a few questions before giving them access to new games.
Here are some questions you should ask to help decide whether or not a game is right for your kids:
- What is the game’s content rating? The ESRB assigns age ratings to games starting from E (for Everyone) to A (Adults only). You can quickly check the content rating of any game on the market by typing its title into the ESRB search engine.
- Does the game include chat? If a game allows players to chat with each other, try to find out what players actually chat about. Some online games require players to collaborate in order to win. Others do not — but offer chat functionality nonetheless.
- Whom will your kids have contact with while playing? Every game encourages its own kind of social environment. You should find out what kind of people play the games your children play, and how they typically interact with each other online.
- Is webcam functionality included? Some games and gaming community chat services encourage members to film themselves when playing. Parents should know what their kids are filming and understand the context of their online activities.
- Can you monitor how your kid plays? Find out how much information the game provides about your child’s time playing it. Some games keep extensive records of player actions, while others keep almost no information at all.
- Does the game feature in-app purchases? If your child is playing a game with in-app purchases, make sure you retain control over the transaction mechanism. If a game doesn’t let you block payments, you may wish to unlink your credit card from it entirely.
- Does the online community have moderators? Moderators are an important part of any online social community. In gaming communities, they often act as referees and tech support personnel, helping ensure an age-appropriate experience for everyone.
Some of these are questions you should ask your child directly. Others are questions you’ll have to find answers for online – preferably from the game’s developer or publisher.
The Bottom Line: Keep Your Kids Safe Online
Keeping young people safe while gaming online is a demanding task. If your child plays games on different platforms, this could mean manually configuring security settings for each one.
Aura safeguards family members of all ages with an all-in-one digital security solution. Aura’s family plan includes award-winning identity theft protection and online security tools, as well as parental controls and Safe Gaming features.
And if the worst should happen, every Aura plan includes a $1 million insurance policy that covers eligible losses due to identity theft, along with 24/7 access to dedicated U.S.-based Fraud Resolution Specialists.