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Gaming is becoming increasingly popular and many gaming platforms are becoming growingly widespread. These platforms are easily accessible to children of different ages and not without risks. According to Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UN-CRC), children enjoy the right ‘to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities’ both offline and online. Considering the particular nature of the online environment, reconciling online gaming with children’s wellbeing, and especially with their rights, is a challenge.
Mr Daniel Kardefelt-Winther (Research Lead - Children & Digital Technology, UNICEF Office of Research) mentioned that in its paper on Children and Online gaming, UNICEF follows a holistic approach which takes into account all children's rights and attempts at balancing restrictions to gaming with the free access to information and leisure.
The discussion first presented a picture of the phenomenon and enumerated the harms of online gaming for children. Mr John Carr (ECPAT International) presented numerous cases of children becoming addicted to the use of gaming platforms and being exposed to serious physical harm while playing online. He then specified that, ‘the average gamer is 35 years old’, therefore a discussion around the harms of gaming should start from considering the profile of the platforms’ users with whom the children get in touch with on the platforms. The discussion shifted to the lack of transparency of gaming platforms. All speakers agreed on the fact that it is not always clear which policies gaming platforms put into place to safeguard the safety of children and prevent an addiction to gaming.
The conversation continued by zooming in on the different problematic issues that gaming yields for children: monetisation of gamers’ data, graphic violence, and the lack of transparency on the content rating system. Kardefelt-Winther considered that it is important to understand the monetisation scheme that is behind the gaming platform, and that such schemes vary from platform to platform. For example, free gaming platforms often profit on the collection of children’s data; however, it is not clear how such data is collected, analysed, and used. Most of the speakers echoed such concerns and particularly mentioned concerns in terms of the privacy of children using platforms.
Solving these challenges is far from easy. They are related to different aspects of the gaming experience and affect stakeholders (gamers, the manufacturers, regulators, and parents). To begin with, speakers found that there is not a lot of systematic research on the gaming platforms’ harm on children. Although some phenomena such as addiction have been increasingly taken into consideration, most of the evidence around children gaming online is weak and often adult-driven. Moreover, more research is needed on the misuses of the gaming platform for illicit purposes (e.g. sexual extortion, sexual exploitation). Ms Emily Cashman Kirstein (Thorn, USA) shared some figures on the fact that gaming platforms are used by some to carry out abusive behaviour.
Many positive elements can be adopted to curb the harms and favour positive uses of the gaming experience. First, child-parent supervision. Mr Clement Leong (Game Developer, and former professional gamer) was joined by the speakers in stressing the importance of gaming as a healthy way of learning and socialising among peers. This is why he suggested greater participation and involvement of parents in the games children play (both online and offline) so as to make gaming a shared family experience. Ms Lies van Roessel (Researcher, Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg) and Ms Vicki Shotbolt (CEO Parent Zone, UK) also stressed the importance of building awareness, not only among children, but also among parents because, ‘the difference between children and parents in understanding the gaming world is vast’ and parents need to make informed decisions regarding the gaming platforms.
Technical solutions towards the harm of online gaming were also mentioned. Cashman Kirstein explained that it is also important to work with the software industry to find technical solutions to remove abuse material and flag it to the law enforcement agency. For example, Thorn is developing a tool which utilises hashing technology to identify child sexual abuse content on Internet platforms so that it can be timely removed.
By Marco Lotti