Parents are the best online gaming partner kids can have in the fight against predators, say experts

By Gina Christian | OSV News

(OSV News) — Online gaming presents unprecedented risks to kids’ safety, but parents remain the best defense against child exploitation — even if they’re not tech savvy, experts told OSV News.

“The more we have healthy parental involvement, and the more parents are engaged in their kids’ lives in a thorough, educated way, we can set kids up for success and limit the opportunity for harm,” Detective Mark Povolny of the Washington County Sheriff Office in Oregon told OSV News.

Povolny and his team routinely conduct online undercover operations to catch predators, using an array of social media platforms including Discord and Roblox, both popular with online gamers. A recent sting by Povolny’s office led to the April 13 arrest of six suspects, including Sean Baba, 29, who had been the music director at St. Pius X Parish in Portland, Oregon.

Online gaming has soared in recent years, representing a $60.4 billion dollar industry in 2021 according to a report from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) in Washington, which cited data from the NPD Group market research firm.

ESA’s report indicated the trend was accelerated by COVID-19 lockdowns, with averages for gaming time rising from 12 to 13 hours per week between 2021 and 2022.

A child is shown using a laptop computer in this undated photo. Online gaming presents unprecedented risks to kids’ safety, but parents remain the best defense against child exploitation — even if they’re not tech savvy, experts told OSV News. (OSV News photo/Peter Byrne, Reuters)

The evolution of the internet has shifted out-of-the-box gaming into “games as an online service,” said Adele Chapline Smith, gaming reviewer for OSV News. “When I was growing up, games were single player or maybe ‘co-op,’ which meant you had to be in the same location with multiple game controllers. But now a lot of games are multiplayer and online, where you just need an internet connection.”

“In the past, gaming was usually a solitary experience — you played by yourself, or a friend came over and played right next to you,” said Callahan Walsh, a child advocate with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) in Washington and co-host with his father of “In Pursuit with John Walsh” on the ID Discovery channel. “Now a game opens up a child to the whole world, where anybody on that platform now has access to a child.”

Games that feature text and voice chat “can expose you to the behaviors of other online players,” said Smith. “I’ve encountered children who pretend to be adults, and adults who pretend to be children.”

Determining the difference is “tricky” even with voice chat functionality, she said, since voice-changing technology — such as VoiceMod, which is compatible with most popular games — enables players to further mask their identities.

Mobile gaming has surged, the ESA report noted, and Walsh said in his experience smartphone games are particularly popular among females, while “boys tend to be the majority of players on consoles.”

Regardless of the device, predators lurk on “any gaming platform, any social media application,” said Povolny. “All of those are places where somebody could try to find a child and talk to them.”

Red flags include attempts to extract “specific information about your family, where you live, where you go to school, things about your siblings,” he said.

Walsh said predators are often very adept at a given game, and might pose as fellow kids and teens to approach unsuspecting underage players in an apparent effort to mentor them.

“They might say, ‘I’ll level boost you,’ or ‘we’ll go on this quest together,’ or ‘I’ll send you in-game currency,'” he told OSV News.

But the price exacted is devastating, with children coerced into providing sexually explicit images of themselves in a practice called “sextortion,” which Walsh said has “skyrocketed.”

Perpetrators then blackmail children, particularly girls, into providing more images, said Walsh.

In contrast, boys have increasingly become targets of “financial sexploitation,” said Walsh, with perpetrators demanding money, gift cards and credit or debit card information after obtaining an initial explicit image from the victim.

Walsh said he was aware of “over a dozen suicides” last year among otherwise well-adjusted boys due to such scams, which are often coordinated by criminal groups working outside of the U.S.

NCMEC, which operates the Cyber Tipline (1-800-THE-LOST), received 30 million reports in 2022, mostly from companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook, regarding sexploitation, said Walsh. He added that NCMEC analysts review and then direct the reports to local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

While industry self-reporting and built-in parental controls are essential tools in minimizing the risks of online gaming, parents are kids’ front line of defense, explained Smith, Povolny and Walsh.

Kids who have already found themselves ensnared by online predators need to know “they can come to their parents” amid the crisis, said Walsh.

If sexploitation has occurred, “end all communications with the predator, but do not delete any communications that have happened so far,” he said. “Report it to the (gaming) platform and to law enforcement, as well as to the Cyber Tipline.”

Walsh also recommended parents try to familiarize themselves with gaming platforms at a basic level, while “setting ground rules (about gaming) and sticking to them.”

All three experts stressed the need for regular conversations between parents and kids about gaming and internet use in general.

“It’s similar to the conversations that parents should be having with their kids about their general safety when they’re younger — the sort of classic ‘stranger danger’ type conversations that parents need to have,” said Povolny. “We also want parents to set this up as hopefully a positive sort of responsibility.”

He said, “The end goal is always that the children are able to do this on their own as they grow up. They need to be able to successfully learn how to navigate the world on their own.”

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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