Experts and charities warn that tighter restrictions need to be put in place to protect children online ahead of this year’s Safer Internet Day, with parents urged to provide closer supervision amid the growing threat of online predators during the pandemic.
More than 74% of parents in the Middle East are worried about their child’s online safety, while over 67% of parents in the region are calling on the gaming industry to do more to protect their child’s safety online. Moreover, a third are unaware of who their kids talk to as they game online, according to new research from Mobily eSports.
It is a worrying trend as more children spend more time online during the pandemic, with the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) noting a monthly record of more than 15,000 online child abuse reports in September 2019 alone.
In the UK, the NSPCC found 1,220 online grooming offences against children occurred in the first three months of lockdown last year. Similarly, the Breck Foundation (a charity set up after 14-year-old Breck Bednar was murdered after being groomed online) has received a record number of calls from worried parents.
About 45% of kids are thought to play popular video games such as Fortnite and APEX Legends, but with them spending more time in their rooms during lockdown, away from their mums and dads, it is harder to monitor what they are playing and exactly who they are talking to and what they are discussing via chat messaging, actual conversations through headsets and player meeting hubs.
Almost half of parents believe their children speak to strangers online as often as two to three times a week, but the true extent could be more serious with one in ten fearing their kids might be interacting with people they do not know every day. While gaming is mainly fun and safe, mums and dads are being advised to be vigilant and report any concerns with predators preying on children, actively contacting them online, building trust and then coercing them.
One way in particular that kids are being targeted is through hugely popular multi-player video games such as Fortnite, Minecraft, Roblox and APEX Legends. Users can connect with and speak to people from anywhere in the world, including strangers. Predators often try to groom children by sending them gifts such as gaming currency, like Minecraft coins and Fortnight V-bucks, hoping that down the line this will lead to explicit photos and video content being shared.
In December 2020, about 120,000 parents signed a Parents Together petition calling on Microsoft to “protect kids from the pandemic of sexual predators” on Minecraft. Little has been done to resolve the issues, and the problem is only increasing across all forms of online gaming. According to a recent study by Strategy&, the GCC gaming market is expected to reach $821 million by 2021, a massive increase from $693 million in 2017. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are expected to expand rapidly with mobile gaming dominating the market for revenue and penetration.
Historically, most parents have been more worried about the content of the games rather than who their kids were playing them with. But, with the increased popularity of online gaming, children’s privacy and security online are becoming increasingly prominent concerns.
To raise awareness of the urgent need to properly educate parents on the potential dangers of unsupervised online gaming, Mobily eSports, in partnership with MullenLowe MENA, has created the ProtectSet headset to make safety a priority. This pioneering voice‐changing technology is designed to help children stay safe while gaming online by masking their true age by making them sound older, decreasing the likelihood that predators will try to get close for grooming purposes.
It’s interesting tech that could help to alleviate issues if accompanied by other common-sense methods, including talking to kids about predators and other potential types of gaming toxicity, maintaining a friendly interest in what they’re playing (and who with), encouraging them to favour playing with people they know, limiting screen time, and just generally being around a while they’re interacting in these other worlds.