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Roblox Struggles to Contain Inappropriate Content

Popular gaming platform Roblox is under scrutiny over so-called "condo games" that could expose young users to naked figures, simulated sex and crude language. Operators of Roblox say the platform, which enables users to program their own games and play games created by others, is used by at least half of American kids under age 16. Roblox is often played on a smartphone, tablet or laptop, and enables kids to create themselves as virtual characters and explore different environments, pretend they are superheroes, raise pets and even invent their own games. Some of these games, according to an article published in Fast Company, are written in computer code that bypasses Roblox's child safety filters (known as “condo games”) and could expose children to inappropriate images and scenarios in the game.


Online Gaming and Literacy: A New Study Reveals a Link

A study by the National Literacy Trust in the UK challenges stereotypes about young gamers. The new research finds that there are many benefits students get from playing video games . 2 in 5 gamers reporting being motivated to read and look up news sources after playing. About 5,000 players aged 11 to 16 were included in the study, which also found that students improved their emotional well-being and developed empathy in the process of playing games.

Kids and the Pandemic: Digital Device Use Continues to Rise

Kidsay, a market research firm specializing in brand engagement for kids, tweens and teens, has a new report entitled Devices and Digital Engagement: The Impact of COVID-19 (So Far) on Device Use of Kids, Tweens and Teens that you can access for free if you sign up. Some takeaways include that smartphone use (and ownership) is on the rise, especially in the 5-to-7-year-old demographic and that 74% of tweens and teens say that they are using their favorite devices more often during COVID that they were pre-COVID. Predictions for the future in the report include: eSports will continue to grow its youth base, animation will become even more prominent in kid-centered content (since it does not require filming on location the way live action does), and TikTok and Instagram will continue to rise since they deliver the connection and content kids seek. Kidsay also says that in the near term, kids will continue to have an unprecedented amount of free time, causing increased parental concern for the amount of time they spend on their devices.

Ready for a Pandemic Gaming Party?

Party Place is a new feature on Roblox being beta tested that allows kids to create private, mini-social networks exclusively with friends to chat, hang out, and plan which games to play. The venue itself doesn’t offer any activities or games, but rather serves as a private place for Roblox users to gather — for example, for a virtual birthday party, a remote learning activity with classmates, for virtual playdates, or anything else. From Party Place, the group can chat and hang out as they decide which Roblox game they plan to play next.

For today’s younger players, platforms like Fortnite and Roblox are becoming their own version of a social network. The kids don’t just go online to play. They socialize, chat and hang out with a mix of real-life friends and virtual ones, blurring the lines between online and offline in ways that traditional social networks, like Facebook, do not. Of course this also opens up another avenue for cyberbullying, so as with all forms of social media be sure to monitor for the symptoms that your child may be a target.

eSports: The Things You Don’t Think About

 eSports played at the high school level has received lots of positive attention, but as Elliot Levine points out in this article entitled Addressing the 800-pound gorillas in scholastic esports, challenges still exist. While fun, spirited “trash talk” has become part of online gaming culture, harassing and bullying other players crosses the line. In fact, a 2019 survey from the Anti-Defamation League found that 65 percent of players reported experiencing “severe harassment” including physical threats, sustained harassing and stalking. Prolonged play can also lead to physical injuries, including eye fatigue and neck, back, wrist and hand pain. These are all things to be aware of and keep in mind if your children decide to take up eSports.

Learning to Code Freebies

This is a strange time in your kids' lives. Their schools closed months ago, their summer plans have been drastically changed, and they can't even visit their friends in person. But they are not alone in this experience. In 1665, Sir Isaac Newton was sent home from Cambridge due to the bubonic plague. While in quarantine, Newton made a number of important discoveries that shaped his life and career.

To help inspire your kids at home, Vernier Software & Technology, an educational company best known for their science software and hardware products that allow students to collect and analyze data in the classroom, has put together an activity that encourages kids to tell the story of Newton’s “year of wonders” through code. Kids can use the Scratch coding app to bring Newton’s story alive. Once they’ve finished telling Newton’s story, they can also use Scratch to code their own story. Storytelling empowers us; challenge kids to use code to share their stories and try out the other activities available for free on the site, including a reading about Newton’s cure for the plague that involves “toad vomit.”

Newest Pokemon App Advocates Teeth Brushing

Here is a new take on gaming - Pokémon Smile is an augmented reality (AR) toothbrushing game designed to encourage kids to brush their teeth better. In Pokémon Smile, players help “rescue other Pokémon from cavity-causing bacteria” by brushing their teeth. The app features some adorable art styles and AR effects that let players wear Pokémon hats while they brush their own teeth alongside the game. If you manage to brush away all the bacteria, players are rewarded by getting to catch the Pokémon at the end. Pokémon Smile isn’t The Pokémon Company’s only attempt at leveraging the brand into healthier living: the company also announced a sleep-tracking game called Pokémon Sleep last year.

How To Keep Your Kids Safe While Playing Games Online

During the pandemic it has been almost inevitable that kids and adults are playing more games online. The usual top pieces of advice about keeping your kids safe with online games is to be familiar with the games they play, to play with them if possible, and to talk to them about how they feel about these games. With luck, parents may have had a little more time to do just that during the lockdown. Beyond that basic advice, there are several categories of things parents should also be thinking about:

  1. Privacy
  • Make sure your child picks a username that protects their identity. Try to pick something that has no clues to name, birthday, hometown, school or phone number. Be creative!
  • Remind kids to never share with their password or gaming account with anyone else, even good friends. That password may be a way for a stranger to figure out passwords for other accounts if they are similar. Having that information, even if only for a “joke,” can let someone else use their account to harass, bully, or post inappropriate things.
  • Kids are easily led into sharing little tidbits of information about their life but instruct them to keep any conversations with people they are playing with about the game itself. If someone starts asking personal questions, it might be best to stop talking to them.
  • Most online games and gaming apps have privacy settings that you can set (an online search to help you find out how for any particular game). Many have privacy settings that have options for showing information such as when you're online and what games you're playing. Additionally, consider limiting who can play with your kids in the game.
  1. Avoiding Cyberbullying
  • Kids should understand that people can and do lie about who they are online, especially when they are playing games. While it is fun to talk to people kids meet while playing, it is smart to assume they are lying about who they are. They should always treat online “friends” as strangers and never agree to talk to or meet them in real life.
  • Cyberbullies have discovered gaming is a great place to find targets. Your children need to know that they can tell you when someone is being mean to them online and that their experience isn’t going to bring an abrupt end to their gaming life. When they do tell you about an incident, talk to them about what happened and help them figure out how to block that person. Emphasize to them that it is never okay for someone to send mean messages or mistreat them while playing a game, but sometimes things can be said in the heat of the moment when someone is angry about losing. It is important for them to know that repeat patterns of harassment or abuse are not acceptable.
  • Most important, keep talking to your kids about their gaming experiences. Reiterate the importance of protecting their personal information and listen carefully when they are talking about their online friends for any clues to that fact that there may be bullying going on. Ask if they have needed to block anyone. Questioning them about what their character in a game is currently doing can also help you decide if the game is appropriate for them.
  1. Beware of Scams and Expenses
  • Caution kids to avoid downloading tip or cheat sheets for online games as they may contain a virus or spyware, even if these come up in the game itself or appear on the website of the game developer.
  • Help your children to review ratings and reviews on games before they play. Always make sure a game is appropriate for your child’s age range. Make sure that other players say they enjoyed the game and did not experience technical issues.
  • Turn off in-app purchases so your child can’t run up a bill. Some games are free to download and may also offer free game play. However, these games are often set up for in-app purchases if players want access to higher levels. Your child may accidentally make expensive in-app purchases while they’re playing, which can result in a huge bill. Open the app or mobile settings on your child’s phone and switch off in-app purchases
  • Other players may offer to sell your children characters or gear, but as with anything on the Internet, it may not be what it seems. Be sure to research that the person is active on gaming sites and has been around long enough to have the characters or gear they’re selling. It’s better to pay through a service like PayPal so you can file a claim if the person is scamming you.
  1. Set Limits and Offer Breaks
  • Gaming is fun, but kids can get carried away and not realize how long they are playing. Limit how much time your child can play in a single session.
  • Tell you children they can’t play games until their homework or chores are done.
  • Offer alternative activities like getting outside to play catch, take a walk, play with the dog, etc.
  • Make sure your kids are taking breaks when they are tired, hungry, or getting frustrated by a game.

Reading and Tech Resources

While you might think most reading resources are offline, there are a number of digital options if you are looking for creative ways to get your kids reading. Check out these ideas to bring together literacy and technology:

  • Audiobooks: Audible, perhaps the motherlode of audiobooks, is free for kids as long as schools are closed. Looking for some recommendation? A site called Imagination Soup has some Audiobook Recommendations for Kids Ages 6-12 and Teens.. An easy-to-use free app Libby/Overdrive also connects to your local library so you can easily check out ebooks and audiobooks. Unite for Literacy also has books narrated in a variety of languages. You can get a month free of animated story books at Vooks. Tumble Book Library might also have something the others don’t offer. Storybook Online offers famous actors and actresses reading picture books out loud.
  • Make a Book Trailer: One idea for getting kids and family (especially grandparents) to engage more over Facetime or Zoom is to get them to read the same book and talk about it. You could take it a step further by asking your kids to make a book trailer to get others to want to read your book. Try this link to look at a collection of book trailers and suggestions for various apps to use to make a short video advertising your book. For teachers looking for creative ways to include technology into reading assignments, a trailer also makes a great alternative to a book report.
  • Create a Book:  To practice those writing skills, why not have your kids write a book about something they’ve become interested in? Book Creator has great ideas on how to proceed and is free to schools affected by the pandemic. Or try this list of Best Apps for Creating Books and Storybooks for resources. This is a great way to get kids actively using technology rather than just be entertained by it.

How Not to Feel Guilty About Gaming During Pandemic

Are you finding that you are playing more video games during the pandemic? How about your kids? In a column entitled “I'm Gaming My Way Through Quarantine — and That's Nothing to Feel Guilty About” from Time magazine online, Matthew Gault says playing games can be a way to compartmentalize what is going on, and can make “social distancing” feel a little more social and a little less distant. And he is not alone. Gaming is up substantially on all the provider’s networks. Experts seem to agree that as long as you are getting some exercise and finishing your chores, work, and homework, there really are no limits on gaming during these times. And if your kids seem to be playing a lot? Ask them if you can play along. It is a great way to find out what they are doing with their time and to build up some credibility in talking to them in the future about gaming.