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Online Gaming: Protecting Children from Hidden Dangers

Created in partnership with Canopy.

Video games are fun, as any tween or teen will surely tell you. But that may be a problem, and not only because kids spend upwards of 9 hours daily in front of screens. It’s a problem because young people aren’t the only ones logged into games — so are predators and the porn industry.

Over 3 billion gamers worldwide play on consoles such as Xbox and PlayStation, handheld devices like Nintendo, countless web-based games, phone and tablet apps, and an emerging virtual reality ecosystem. Gaming is big business, too, globally generating over $184 billion annually.

Online gaming is often a social activity, played with schoolmates, friends, and strangers across town and across the world. Many gamers broadcast or livestream their playing on YouTube and gaming platforms such as Kick and Amazon’s Twitch. This way, kids can swap tips and strategies, feel part of a community, and enhance their self-esteem.

Most platforms allow players to communicate through direct messaging (DM) services. But that means that unsavory actors are also ‘DMing’ kids. Other perils include “pathological gaming” or “gaming disorder” – symptoms may include depression, social anxiety, and aggression – as well as addiction-like screen time and diminished quality of life. Sexual harassment, too, is rampant among the gaming community.

Video gaming is also linked to sexism, aggression towards women, and lack of empathy for female victims of violence and rape. In fact, some online games allowed a user to rape female characters. One was called Rape Day. After public outcry, it was pulled from the gaming platform Steam, which has more than 20 million worldwide users. The popular game series Grand Theft Auto, which is rated for age 13 and above in the US, features prostitution, strip clubs, and sexual assault.

Research shows that children who play violent video games are more likely than non-gaming peers to encounter online pornography and to develop the “pathological use” of porn. Many gaming sites actually showcase animated porn, as discussed in a recent Culture Reframed guide for parents. The Steam platform, for example, allows anybody to play more than 3,400 “Sexual Content” games so long as they have an email address and check a cursory box stating “I am 13 years of age or older.” There is no verification. Many of the games are free. Scenes from some of them can be viewed on Pornhub.

Fortnite, an online game with hundreds of millions of players, also fails to verify the age of users. Players form alliances and thus interact by voice and text chat. The eSafety Commission of New Zealand called Fortnite a “honey pot” for predators, who try to lure or ‘sextort’ children into sending sexual photos. Discord, a chat platform originally created for gamers, is a haven for sexual predators and chat groups that trade nude photos of young girls.

Roblox, an online gaming platform, has more than 28 million daily users under the age of 13. It hosts harmless games but also sex games, explicit chat rooms, and digital strip clubs. On Roblox, too, predators seek to groom children by sending photos. Kids have stumbled onto actual porn snuck into games. Malicious actors have similarly inserted pop-up ads for commercial porn sites into children’s games for Android phones and on the Google Play Store.

On Pornhub, Xvideos, Xnxx, and other freely available porn sites one can find videos tagged “Roblox,” “Fortnite,” “gamer girl,” “Minecraft,” and other children’s games. Although the game Overwatch is suitable for young teens, Wikipedia hosts an “Overwatch and pornography” page.

Are parents and guardians powerless to help their children avoid moving from games to porn? No. What follows are several useful strategies, many endorsed by front-line healthcare workers.

  • Create a safe, calming, blame-free environment where children feel open to discussing what they see online. If kids fear your response, they will hide their online activities.
  • Together, set reasonable boundaries about your child’s online behavior and gaming. Put those rules, as well as rewards and punishments, in a family agreement. (You can download Culture Reframed’s free and customizable Social Media & Mobile Phone Contract.) Post a copy where your children use digital devices.
  • Frame conversations about online behavior in terms of general health and safety. You surely tell your kids to look both ways before crossing the street, to obey the traffic signals, and to not enter every door they pass. The same rules apply to the information highway. It’s not safe to click on every link or visit every website, no matter how tempting they seem.
  • Limit daily screen time, which includes television. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 2 hours daily, including gaming. The rest of a child’s ‘free time’ should be devoted to physical play, social activity, hobbies, and the like. And you need to unplug, too. Your kids are watching you.
  • Periodically review your child’s texts, Instagram posts, TikTok likes, chats, internet history, and so forth until they are older — at least early teens, says the American Psychological Association – and you feel confident they can interact safely online. Be sure to tell your child you will do so, too, or you will undermine their trust.
  • Most video games and social media platforms have age recommendations and rules. Review them with your kids.
  • Ask your child to teach you their favorite games, and join or watch them from time to time. You might not be enthralled with Splatoon, Pokémon Moon, or Disney LOL. But if you take an interest in your child’s cyber-pastimes, they are more likely to take an interest in your guidance.
  • Kids who seem friendly online might not really be so – and they might not even be kids. (Predators often pretend to be children.) You do not want to frighten your children — you want them to be aware. A good rule is that if you don’t know the other person, then your child should not text, friend, or message them without first speaking with you.
  • Stress never to share personal information online — name, address, age, hometown, school – unless they ask you or another caretaker and receive permission.
  • Likewise, they should never meet someone in person without speaking to a trusted adult. Kids, too, should tell a parent or guardian if somebody online makes such a request or asks for photos, offers to send gifts, suggests keeping a conversation secret, and the like. If you suspect an adult is grooming children, call the police, an FBI field office, or the CyberTip hotline of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
  • We know you would rather not discuss pornography with your kids. But the predatory porn industry leaves you no choice, or it will lure them in. Culture Reframed offers Programs for Parents that will guide you through age-appropriate conversations.
  • Many schools no longer teach ‘sex ed.’ Absurdly, those that do are not necessarily required to include medically accurate information. Please contact your local legislators and school boards to insist that the curriculum include developmentally-suitable, scientifically-vetted lessons on human sexuality that include critical literacy skills about porn. On October 2, 2023, Culture Reframed will launch a new, comprehensive, porn-critical sex ed curriculum for educators.

Technology is not the problem; it is unrestricted and unsupervised gaming, hyper-sexualization, and porn. Technological tools can, in fact, provide another layer of safety. Some online games have their own parental controls. You can also download a general parental control app for phones and computers. Canopy, for instance, uses artificial intelligence to detect and block pornographic images and videos on your child’s browser. (You can use the code CULTURE20 when signing up at for a 20% discount on any of their packages. A portion of those revenues supports Culture Reframed.) If a game leads children to hazardous or pornographic sites online, Canopy will catch and block the images, links, and websites. Canopy can also detect sexting, which games, apps, and other gamers can instigate. Parents can control the types of apps and sites that Canopy blocks and permits. In the future, additional protection will be offered for images shown on the games themselves. Canopy can also be used as a tool for screen time management, again in the context of family conversations.

Remember always that kids are kids. They will blunder and make mistakes, just as you did. When it happens, you want them to speak with you right away, so tell them beforehand that you will not be angry but will work with them to solve problems and improve. Signs that something is amiss with their online activities include: hiding screens, withdrawal from favorite games, worry or anger after reading texts, evasiveness about what they are viewing or who they are DMing, and changes in sleep or appetite. If you notice any of this, reach out to a school counselor, therapist, or social worker for advice.

The FBI estimates that half a million predators are active online, including on gaming platforms. A “substantial proportion” of young people experience online sexual abuse. Cyber-grooming cases are increasing rapidly. Gaming should be fun and safe for kids. The tips we have offered will help you and your child keep it that way.

Explore Our Free Online Programs for Parents

Explore Our Free Online Programs for Parents Where are your kids getting their sex education? Their smartphones? In this digital age, it’s critical for young people to have trusted adults to help them build resilience and resistance to hypersexualized media and porn. Check out Culture Reframed’s free online Programs for Parents of Tweens and Parents of Teens.