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Nearly 100 percent of teenagers play online video games. Do you, as a parent, know what goes on during the social interactions teens have within them? You should.

Ninety-seven percent of US-based young people aged 12 to 17 play video games, research shows — 99 percent of boys, and 94 percent of girls, to be exact. Though a frankly shocking number of kids admits to playing boring old solitaire, by themselves of course, many of the games teens play involve online interaction with other people, either those they also know in real life or total "randos". A total of 27 percent of teens say they play games with people they only know online, but we suspect the true number may be much higher. 

Lots of research has been devoted to the question of whether playing violent video games such as first-person shooters can make teens more aggressive, with contradictory results, but let's look beyond the violence (which isn't even part of every game) and see what kind of impact online social interactions that take place in games can have on teens' lives. 

Social interaction in online games among teenagers: The Good

Eighty-five percent of teens who play games that involve social interactions — in this case, simply the ability to "chat" with one another during the game — report encountering "helpful" or "generous" behavior within the game. These behaviors may be similar to those you'd encounter during a friendly soccer match in a school yard, for instance. One teen gamer, Rachel, said:

"When you're a noob [a new player], it's great to see how some experienced players will step in to help you learn how to get better at the game. Then, they can become team mates that you play with all the time. When someone is cyberbullying someone else, these players also often tell them to stop doing that, to not be a racist, sexist, homophobe, or whatever they're doing."

So, some players are nice to other players, but is there anything else that can be seen as positive? One parent who decided to spend time playing games together with her teens, SteadyHealth author Olivia Maloy, told me: 

"One of the fascinating things, to me, is that you get to 'know' these people based on their gameplaying skills, but you really know nothing about them. They could be anyone — a seven-year-old Lithuanian boy or a 41-year-old housewife from England — and it doesn't really matter. Games blur social barriers that are otherwise in place. This can be a positive thing, something that may teach teens to be accepting of diversity. I have also noticed pretty philosophical debates within games, where players rally around someone who has just lost their grandfather, for instance, and they then discuss whether there's life after death. Since English is often the default language in games, another potentially positive thing is that people who speak English as a second language get to perfect their skills in an organic manner."

These kinds of interactions — or perhaps the fact that the ability to play games with skill also implies overall digital literacy — may also have a knock-on effect. Research indicates that teens who engage in online games where they interact with other people socially are more likely to follow current affairs and be civically engaged (by raising money for charity, for example) than those who do not play games on the internet. 

We should also note, here, that 70 percent of teens play games with people they know in real life, either while in the same room or not. Once seen as something only lonely "nerds" did, video games now provide a gateway to meaningful social interactions and friendships, something you can easily connect over if you're, say, the new kid in school. Another important dimension here is that of playing games collaboratively rather than competitively. Working on goals with a teammate may have the same social and cognitive benefits that any kind of team work does, including teaching social and leadership skills. 

Online games: The and the downright ugly

Sixty-three percent of teens who play games with others have reported encountering players who are "mean and overly aggressive", while very nearly half — 49 percent — were exposed to "people being hateful, racist, or sexist". What does this look like in practice? Rachel — who, as a "girl gamer", is more vulnerable to this kind of abuse — shares her experiences:

"When it's obvious that you're a girl gamer, male players like to jump on the sexist bandwagon. It starts with things like them saying that girls are not as good at the game, that they shouldn't play at all, or that their fingers are smaller so they're slower. It gets worse, though! They ask you to go out with them, say they want to rape you, or ask for nude pictures. It makes me pretty angry, so I try to kill those players in the game so they don't say I'm bad at the game anymore. They do ask for your Instagram, Discord, or whatever. When that happens, I just ignore them, because I don't want things to get creepy."

Alex, a boy, adds:

"Yeah, I've noticed that. A lot of players call you gay if they don't like you. I've seen players with nicknames that make it clear they are racist, sexist, or just general [expletives], or with swastika symbols in their names. Some people talk about their private parts or having sex. Others only play with those who speak the same language and if they see people with Chinese letters in their names, they say, 'hey, let's gang up on the [slur for Asian people]!'"

Bob, the father of a 14-year-old daughter and an avid gamer himself, shares:

"Many games are dominated by 14 to 15 year old boys who want to prove themselves to their peers by saying the kinds of things I'd definitely not want my daughter exposed to. I'm glad she doesn't play the game I do and read what the kids on there are saying. Kids get around profanity filters by adding a few letters here and there, and make ample use of that work-around. I often tell them, kids, get your heads seen to."

SteadyHealth author Olivia Maloy has this to say on the topic:

"I did a little experiment that definitely doesn't meet modern scientific standards but was interesting nonetheless, wherein I took two online games in which there's social interaction and played them with gender-neutral, 'female', and 'male' nicknames. When I was perceived as male, I received strategy tips, was called a noob [inexperienced player], or got complimented on my gameplay. The focus was on the game itself. When I was perceived as female, on the other hand, comments of a sexual nature also came my way. I even had a slightly unsettling experience in which someone claiming to be 18 asked if I was 10 and wanted to be on social media with me.

I see games as a microcosm of society; you'll encounter the same potentially dangerous things in them as you will anywhere else in life. Letting your children play online games isn't more dangerous than letting them hang around the local park, but it isn't less dangerous either. Because games play an important role in teens' social lives now, parents should strive to be as aware of everything that goes on in them as teens themselves are. Discussions about online safety shouldn't be skipped. Your teen, or younger child, isn't safer just because you may happen to be in the same room with them as they play."

What can parents do to monitor online games? What should they do?

Video games are fast becoming a near-universal part of growing up. If your teen has an internet-connected device that they spend time on, they're playing — even if you didn't pay for games. Ninety percent of parents says they're either always or sometimes aware of the kinds of games their teens play, but there's a big difference between "always" and "sometimes". You can try:

  • Asking your teen about the games they like to play — they'll probably be interested in discussing this with you. 
  • Playing these games yourself to get first-hand experience of the kinds of social interactions people have within them. 
  • Discussing the good and bad aspects of in-game interactions with your children. 
  • Reiterating your rules very clearly. Teach your teens never to give out personal information on the internet and exactly why, by discussing sexual predators and cyberbullies openly — forewarned is forearmed. 
  • Making it clear that they can come to you if they experience anything unpleasant. Research shows that parents often think they've done this, while their teen doesn't recall any such conversation. By mentioning that you're there to advise your teen often, you actually increase the chance that they'll talk to you about unpleasant experiences they've had in games.