I’ve always allowed my kids to play their games online whenever appropriate. My older son used to play GTA Online, which has significantly less swearing and violence than GTA V. When Skylanders introduced an online component, I excitedly told him he could now play with his friends. But while I encourage online play for my kids, I’m also keenly aware of how and where cyberbullying and trolling in online games comes from.
To understand cyberbullying, you first need to understand normal bullying
My fascination with bullying came when my son was in kindergarten. A classmate had pushed, smacked, and kicked him and he came home in tears. I did what I thought most parents would do: told my son to fight back. Hit that kid so hard he thinks twice about bullying you again. The next day the school called me in for a meeting with the teacher because my son had punched the bully in the face. Sitting there, I argued that my child had done nothing wrong and was merely putting a stop to the bullying since the school clearly hadn’t done anything about it. I left the meeting agreeing to talk to my son, but arguing that I still believed he wasn’t wrong.
While this was happening I was taking a magazine publishing course at the University of Victoria. Our term project was to create a magazine, and I had selected an education and parenting magazine. I decided to write an article about bullying in schools and explore the disconnect between teachers and parents on the “right” solution.
I interviewed Dr. Bonnie Leadbeater about the WITS Program. New to journalism, I came into the interview heavily biased against systems like WITS and I’m sure my questions were way more slanted than they should have been. She tackled every argument I made professionally and intelligently. By the end of the interview, I was convinced that the WITS Program works. She’d flipped me. WITS stands for “Walk Away, Ignore, Talk it Out, and Seek Help.”
The most memorable thing Dr. Leadbeater told me was, “Kids shouldn’t be expected to solve these problems on their own.” Although kids are taught to seek help, WITS is really about educating parents and teachers and making sure they listen and pay attention when kids come to them for help.
Okay, so how does all this relate to cyberbullying?
“Kids shouldn’t be expected to solve these problems on their own.” Just like bullying at school, it’s our responsibility as parents to ensure our kids don’t get bullied online. Thankfully, the PlayStation 4 offers tremendous tools to prevent this.
First, PlayStation accounts are by default anonymous. Other people can see your username, your country, and some other unidentifiable data like game and trophy lists. The same goes for people on your friends list. Unless you accept a “Real Name Request,” real names stay hidden.
Second, privacy settings can eliminate nearly every avenue for cyberbullying. When you set up your child’s account, disable messages and friend requests and potential bullies can’t get in contact.
Voice chat can only be disabled via a sub account, and I don’t recommend sub accounts. Although time limits and age restrictions are good features, they go against my whole thing of active engagement. Instead, “disable” voice chat by creating a private party. This way if your child wants to voice chat with a friend, they still can without modifying parental controls.
Really, though, the PlayStation 4 is not a very scary place
Cyberbullying is a problem on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat because kids have a direct connection to one another, often involuntarily. Direct, targeted cyberbullying isn’t anywhere near the same on PlayStation 4 because it’s such a closed environment. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore everything I’ve said, because there is a real threat to our kids’ ability to enjoy online games: trolling.
Trolling is a lesser form of cyberbullying which is more often spur of the moment, but to children can feel like a personal and direct attack. When my son played World of Tanks, another player on his team deliberately pushed my son off the map. Frustrated at being unable to move, he asked me why his own team attacked him:
As much as I wanted to give him the Alfred speech, I simply explained that some people don’t play to be nice; they play to be jerks. Either wait him out or quit and find a new match. Games with text chat like Final Fantasy XIV, Elder Scrolls Online, and Paragon are a little harder to deal with because those systems are often key features of the game. For that reason, I don’t encourage my kids to play games that rely heavily on text chat.
This kind of brings us back to the first to parts of WITS: walk away and ignore. If you don’t let someone’s trolling bother you, you’ll have more fun playing the game.
There are rules against sending harassing messages over the PlayStation Network, but there are rules against that on Facebook as well—it still happens. It’s best to prevent problems before they come up, and educate kids on the few gaps leftover. You can’t control what strangers say online, so disabling the ability for strangers to contact your kids online makes sense.
Remind kids that at the end of the day, it’s just a game
Whether it’s someone pushing you into enemy fire in Crossout, standing in front of your sniper rifle in Overwatch, or teamkilling in Friday the 13th, remind your kids that it’s just a game, and there are many more positive experiences than negatives ones. But don’t let them play Friday the 13th. Seriously. Jason can rip off the jaw of a camper.