From 'Playing' online games to 'Visiting' online worlds. Why we need an urgent shift in language.
We need an urgent change in our language and approach to gaming and social media usage. The strategies and language utilised by some cyber safety speakers and governmental organisations are becoming obsolete, needing more effectiveness to properly engage with and teach about this rapidly evolving space. It's critical to abandon these outdated approaches.
Since May 2021, I have been examining this approach in various schools I collaborate with. I have also spoken with our Youth Voice team.
My findings support the fact that we should immediately reconsider the use of the term "playing" when discussing online gaming and social media in the context of online safety. Online games have evolved into intricate, interactive platforms that promote learning, social interaction, and even a competitive spirit. However, they also present risks such as predation, sextortion, and scams. Labelling gaming as merely "playing" unintentionally diminishes the seriousness of online happenings. Instead of "playing", I have been redirecting the discussion to educate children and their parents that our online activities are akin to "visiting a place".
The concept of the metaverse is gaining traction. A term we may have encountered but might not fully understand unless we're technical. It signifies the transition from a two-dimensional internet to a three-dimensional immersive world. I have witnessed firsthand the tech world moving faster than the speed of light, it seems. I have watched this up close during my tech career, which has spanned 32yrs from pre-internet Australia to the current era of smartphones. The emergence of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies, like Oculus Rift and Microsoft's HoloLens, are leading the way towards a more accessible metaverse. The concept of the metaverse isn't novel - it was brought to light in Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel "Snow Crash," which portrayed a virtual reality successor to the internet.
At the centre of this transformation are our children.
During my most recent visit to Australia, I spent seven weeks interacting with children, conducting workshops across various Australian schools, ranging from small rural public schools to large private and independent institutions. My team of expert speakers and I have listened to and continued to validate this theory. My team and I compare observations and adapt our sessions fortnightly as it moves that fast and we need to keep up to date if not slightly ahead. We all share a common passion for improving online safety for individuals of all ages.
I have recently directed my team, after a year of asking tens of thousands of young individuals, to cease referring to it as "playing online games", and instead start discussing "visiting places". It's no longer just about winning points, but about spending a portion of their lives in these online environments. We need to revise the way we converse with kids about gaming risks and app usage, which would in turn alter their perspective.
Let's use Roblox as an example, a platform that has enamoured millions of children worldwide. Roblox isn't simply a game, it's a platform that enables users to create and share their own games and virtual worlds, becoming the first of the metaverse games.
Instead of saying they're "playing Roblox," I have described it as "Going to a Roblox world." "Going to Bloxburg or Brookhaven" as examples that will resonate with your kids. This language shift, I believe, has enhanced children's comprehension that they're not merely messing around in a fictitious world, but engaging in a realistic environment with tangible implications. However, parents, educators, police, and government agencies need to adopt the same language for this to work effectively.
By eliminating the term "play", we discourage normalising activities that should not be associated with "playing" at all....ever, such as predation, sextortion, scams, and online bullying.
***Trigger Warning the rest of this article discusses sexual abuse***
In 2021, a couple of incidents were reported to me. An 11-year-old girl experienced a disturbing episode in Roblox, where she was offered free Robux (the in-game currency) to enter a room where an adult gamer sexually violated her in-game character/avatar. After reporting this incident during one of our student sessions, she repeatedly pointed to her chest, saying "It happened to me." This highlights that for children, there's no distinction between online and offline - it's all just life.
Another young boy almost found himself in a dangerous situation with an acquaintance he made in Fortnite. They realised they both resided in the same region and had been gaming together for a significant period before the incident happened. When the virtual friend invited him to connect on Snapchat, the young boy was shocked when an older individual knocked on his door. Fortunately, his older brother was home at the time. The boy had not secured his SnapMap.
Both of these incidents were extremely serious and reported to the police, and they are not isolated occurrences they're becoming increasingly common.
This is from one of our Youth Voice members in response to my questions:
Have you ever been asked to be someone’s boyfriend or girlfriend when gaming? Yes.
Have you ever been asked to play the mum dad, doctor or nurse or similar in a role-play game? Yes.
Have you ever been asked to lie down next to someone else's avatar? Not lay down, but I’ve been asked to position avatars and make them look like they’re kissing or doing other inappropriate things.
Have you ever been asked to follow someone on another platform like TikTok or connect with them on Snapchat? Yes.
Without looking up the answer, do you know the average age of a gamer? 15? (I just googled it, and I am floored! That’s scary when you think about the potential for predators in children’s games, let alone when young kids play games outside of their age bracket.)
My thoughts are that we should educate the young people in our lives that games should be treated like you are going to a place rather than playing a game. My fear is inappropriate behaviour like all of the things I have mentioned above has been normalised to a point that you don’t even think about it. Here is an example, the last school I spoke at I explained to a group of year 3’s that next time they are playing Roblox to treat it like they were going to the local shopping mall. That way they would know what to do when things get weird. If someone randomly walked up to them in a shopping centre and asked any of the questions I asked you above, they would tell a parent or another trusted adult. So why aren’t they doing that when it comes to online gaming? Do you think explaining games like Roblox to young kids in this way would help them to be safer? Please discuss in as many words as you need to.
As a kid, I was very naïve and sometimes straight-up reckless. If people asked me to do any of that stuff I would! I liked the attention and I liked talking to people so, in short, I was perfect prey for a predator. Explaining it like this, especially to young kids will hopefully make the message of ‘the people you meet online are not your friends’ really stick. I wish someone had explained it to me like that.
Where to from here?
A significant but simple shift we can make is in our language. We need to discuss these online environments as 'places' children visit, rather than games they play. By doing this, we can help children understand that their actions in these spaces can have real-world implications and that the principles of safety, respect, and responsibility apply equally in the digital and physical worlds.
In my sessions, I ask specific questions about Roblox to children up to year eight and ask those above year eight to consider their younger siblings. Teachers are consistently shocked when they see the number of hands raised in response to my queries.
The questions are (please ask your kids and students)
Who has been asked to be someone's boyfriend or girlfriend?
This is a question that often results in laughter and numerous raised hands, highlighting how normalised such behaviour has become.
Who has been offered free Robux to play the roles of Mum/Dad/Doctor/Nurse?
Once again, the response is laughter and many raised hands.
Who has been asked to connect with someone on another platform like TikTok, Snapchat, or Whatsapp? Many hands.
Who has been offered free Robux to lie down next to someone's avatar? Yet again, a to many hands.
With older students, I ask them to have these discussions with their younger siblings.
Now do you see where I'm headed with this?
By saying "playing" Roblox, we normalise this behaviour. When I ask what a child would do if a significantly older stranger approached them in a shopping centre (considering the average gamer age is 34-36 years) and asked them to be their girlfriend/boyfriend, and offered them $50 Robux (the in-game economy) to lie down on a bed in a store with them, or flashed them (age specific of course) the answer becomes apparent. In real life, the police would be called every single time, and the child would not hesitate to speak out.
We need to encourage children to critically evaluate their online interactions. They should understand it's okay to question things, stand up for themselves, and seek a trusted adult's help if something feels wrong. It's crucial we establish an environment where kids feel secure expressing their worries and know their feelings will be taken seriously by the adults in their life without shaming or judging them. Most importantly, we must foster an environment where children feel safe expressing their concerns without fear of punishment, dismissal or having gaming banned. This fosters trust, encourages open communication, and empowers kids to make informed decisions and navigate their online lives confidently. For a young person, there is no distinction between online and offline, it's all just life.
The internet has evolved into more than just a space for socialisation and creativity. It's an integral part of our daily reality, and the emergence of the metaverse is likely to further enhance this integration. The dynamic between children and technology has changed significantly in recent years. Kids are not just consumers of digital content; they're creators and active participants in the online spaces they frequent. Platforms like Roblox encourage children to construct, share, and manage their own games and virtual worlds, fostering creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving skills. However, this platform is also marketed to adults. N o matter how much you think you've secured your child’s Roblox account, we need to re-evaluate how we teach about online risks so that if they're at a friend's place where the settings are more relaxed, they know what to do. We must adjust our perception of the online world to effectively educate our children about it. We should express active interest in our children's online activities. Inquire about the games they're engaged in, the friendships they're forming, and the experiences they're having. This not only provides opportunities for guidance and learning but also promotes communication and fosters trust.
I recently spoke at an Australian Parliamentary Inquiry into Law Enforcement Capability and Child Exploitation. A big part of what I discussed was Roblox and Omegle. You can download our free guides to these apps here
As we inch closer to a metaverse-dominated online culture, our discussions about online safety must adapt to this emerging reality. The magnitude and intricacy of these spaces are projected to increase exponentially. Our educational approach must evolve to equip children with the knowledge and skills they need to navigate this new reality safely and responsibly. As these virtual spaces transition from 'games' to 'places,' we must aid our children in understanding that their online interactions can be as impactful and potentially risky as those in the real world. The metaverse isn't just the future of technology; it's the future of childhood as well. Our duty is to prepare our children to navigate this landscape securely, responsibly, and with confidence.
In Australia immediately report suspected online grooming to www.accce.gov.au
Internationally contact your local law enforcement agency.
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