While I was packing up after a recent parent presentation, I noticed a pensive looking mom pacing near the back of the school’s auditorium. I could tell that she was struggling with a scenario or question, so I stopped what I was doing and approached her to see if she wanted to talk about anything in my presentation.
A few weeks after our conversation, she sent me this note, which she agreed to let me share with you:
As I was sitting in your presentation, I couldn’t help but think of all of the ways I had inadvertently been allowing our 14-year-old son to be exposed to a whole world of danger. My husband and I had placed parental controls on our family computer, and although our son has a phone, we disabled its Internet access. Unfortunately, we hadn’t thought at all about the dangers available through his gaming device.
My husband and I aren’t too savvy with these things, so we let him set up the console when we gave it to him as a birthday gift, earlier this year. We also allowed him to use his allowance to purchase games. He’s a great kid, and he’s active in his youth group; it really hadn’t dawned on us that he could get in trouble through playing with something I thought was for kids.
But the night before your presentation, he left his phone in the kitchen while he was playing basketball with the neighbors outside. While I was cleaning the dishes, he received a text. I picked up the phone to take it outside to him, but I had a funny feeling, so I looked at the text. It wasn’t from anyone I knew, and it was about meeting up later that night through one of the games he played. When I asked our son about it, he told me it was just another kid he met online while he was playing one of the games popular with his peers; I let it slide, but something didn’t sit right with me about the text.
After your presentation, my husband and I started doing some investigation into my son’s gaming world. As it turned out, many of the games he had purchased were not only incredibly violent, but they also included tons of sexual content, and many were rated “M” for mature, even though we had a rule against purchasing such games. One included visits to a gentleman’s club, strippers, sex with prostitutes and the like. It was all very graphic. Another fighting game he purchased had topless pole dancers in the background.
Even more disturbingly, we found months of chats and messages that he had exchanged with some of the people he met through some of these games. He wasn’t only talking to other kids; he was talking to adults through his gaming device. The messages we found with one individual were extremely troubling. When we went through them all, it was clear our son had met this person and started an innocent conversation as they played, but the conversation became more personal. This person was asking our son about our family, whether he had rules about what he could do online and the games he played. This person had been the one who suggested my son would like one of the mature games we found. The messages had recently turned sexual. This person was asking our son about his sexual experiences, what he was into and this stranger even sent him some links to pornographic websites. The most recent message we discovered asked my son to send a sexual picture of himself to this stranger. When we looked at his phone, it seemed as though he had also been texting constantly with this person, whom he later told us he thought was a 19-year-old girl.
I am still numb with the idea of my son engaging with someone he doesn’t even know in this way. We have a lot to learn, and I am terrified by what our negligence allowed into our home and the risk we placed our son in.
Parents, are you aware that your son and daughter has easy access to all of the good and all of the bad of the Internet through their gaming console? We’ve heard from many whose entrypath into pornography was through sexual video game content. I’ve heard time and time again from law enforcement that predators, cyberbullies and others of ill intent are using gaming to target and groom their victims.
If you aren’t paying attention to what your kids are playing and with whom they are talking to, it’s time to start doing so today. Remember to use parental controls on your child’s gaming device, consider restricting the chat and message features, setting time limits and limiting their access to age-appropriate games. Keep the gaming console in an open place, and play games alongside your kids, which can be a great way to learn and connect with your teens.
And remember, all of us were looking for affirmation and attention as we were growing up, and we were all curious about sex. Don’t leave it to strangers, to the gaming industry and to the pornographers to educate them in this area. Do your part and be proactive about protecting your kids online.