Feature: Online Games Have Become a Social Lifeline for School Kids in Lockdown

But are they safe?

Humans are social creatures, this is a well-known fact. Even if you’re an introvert, there’s no doubt that the social isolation we’ve all had to endure during the pandemic this year has been detrimental. Kids especially have seen a massive drop in social interactions. Usually at school Monday – Friday and with loads of potential days out during the Summer holidays, children are used to constant social engagement year-round.

We’ve had to adapt this year, and Zoom and other video-conferencing technologies have allowed us to emulate real life, face to face conversation. Games have done just the same for school kids who do more playing than debating during school hours. While playing video games is usually treated like a waste of time and a particularly lonely activity, online games have become fully-fledged social spaces, especially for players with a headset. During the pandemic, games have become somewhat of a social medium, joining Zoom and Houseparty as another of our new forms of communication.


A Better Form of Communication?

Carolyn’s children, aged 9 and 7, have been using Roblox to connect with their friends online. Despite having concerns about the online game, Carolyn found that the usual video-conferencing tools didn’t really cut it. “Because of the messaging facility [on Roblox], they felt it was a real lifeline to their friends, so we had a real dilemma trying to decide what was best,” Carolyn told me over an email. “We got them to do Zooms and Houseparty, and Google Hangouts but, when you’re 9 and 7, ‘conversation’ over a video call is rather limited, and it was the playing together that they enjoyed and felt connected through the games.”

Roblox has been especially popular during lockdown. In late July, the company reported that more than half of kids under the age of 16 in the US were playing Roblox. They have now introduced a Play Together initiative which will allow players to privately host virtual meetups and hangouts. In a survey conducted by the company in May, Roblox found that 52% of teens were using Roblox and other games to connect with their real-life friends during lockdown.

Another extremely popular game among both kids and adults during lockdown has been Animal Crossing New Horizons. Kate’s daughter, also aged 9, has been using Animal Crossing to communicate with her family while shielding due to an autoimmune disease. “From early March we locked down together, just the two of us, as she started shielding at the advice of her doctor,” Kate says. “She would normally stay with her dad every other weekend, but as his partner works as a key worker we decided that my daughter wouldn’t go and stay as it may put her at risk.”

This was difficult for everyone, Kate tells me, but Animal Crossing has provided a medium for Kate’s daughter to comfortably stay connected with her dad and other family members. Like Carolyn’s children, Kate’s daughter was already using video calls to communicate with her family, but she has “never been a great communicator over the phone,” which Kate believes is normal for children. She likes to walk around rather than sit and chat, and would always forget what she actually wanted to say,” says Kate.

Journalist and author, Andy Robertson, who wrote Taming Gaming, a book to help parents get more from games and guide children towards healthy habits, believes that games are a much better method of communication for kids than phone and video calls. “Games create virtual spaces like playgrounds, where children can interact while doing other things,” he says. “This enables wide ranging conversations and support from friends and family.”

This certainly rang true for Kate’s family, too. “Having Animal Crossing meant [my daughter] could interact with her other family through their islands, sending gifts, going to visit each others’ islands, sending postcards, talking through chats. She felt close to them using a medium that she was more confident with, and so she could have proper conversations without the stress of the phone. It also made her still feel part of their family community when she was missing out on physically seeing them.”


A Replacement for Real Life Play?

This is a huge benefit of online games – they emulate real life play. And, just as much as communication, play is important for all children. It’s obviously fun and gives parents the time and space to relax but it also helps children to learn. According to Scholastic, “play is linked to growth in memory, self-regulation, oral language, recognizing symbols…higher levels of school adjustment and increased social development.” Like I mentioned earlier, children – especially the younger ones – are much more inclined to spend their free time playing rather than chatting but, during the pandemic, playing has probably felt a little monotonous and even stressful for parents who feel they have better things to do.

Andy believes that there are virtually no differences between real life play and online gaming. “Play is play, and this applies to virtual spaces as well,” he says. “Games can extend play from those in your household to a worldwide playground of other children.”


How Safe are Online Games?

Both Carolyn and Kate have found that allowing their kids more online playtime has been great for their mental health in a lot of aspects. However, Carolyn says, “Roblox was to the detriment of their mental health in other ways.”

When her kids first got into Roblox last year, Carolyn assumed it was fairly harmless. However, she eventually had to stop her children from playing it due to bullying and small-scale scams which led to them losing characters and other collectables to strangers. Because so many of their friends were using Roblox as their sole form of communication, though, Carolyn allowed them to use it again, but the bullying was still an issue.

“They’re back to school next week and that’s the end for Roblox for the foreseeable future,” she says. “It really feels like the Wild West of gaming, I wish it was banned!”

Negative experiences while playing online games (or using the internet in general, to be honest) are unfortunately part and parcel. Claire, whose children (aged 16 and 10) have also been communicating with friends through games during lockdown said she has always had reservations about online games – but does what she can to “keep tabs on them,” she says.

“You need to ensure you have set-up your devices properly,” Andy tells PC Guide. “Spending 30 minutes doing this means your child can play safely and only communicate with others in ways you want them to. It also lets you limit spending and apply PEGI age ratings automatically.”

In order to keep her children as safe as possible while interacting with others online, Claire keeps the Xbox and computer in the same room where she does her work, so she can hear what is being said. Her youngest child has his profile locked, meaning he can only speak to people who have been approved by Claire, and she’s been educating her eldest about the dangers of the internet for years.


Do the Pros Outweigh the Cons?

Despite these worries, though, Claire says gaming has been a lifeline during lockdown. “Being able to have contact with their peers and do things together – whether building a village in Minecraft for the youngest or being part of a battle time for my eldest – has enabled them to manage lockdown more effectively,” she tells PC Guide.

She also notes that their conversations are about more than just the game they’re playing. “They’ve discussed schoolwork and what they’ve been doing in lockdown,” she says. Andy has noticed the same. “My son made friends in other countries during lockdown while he was playing Rocket League.

“He found talking to them about how things were going with the virus, a good way to understand and process what was happening in the world.”

While there are clear downsides to playing online, in a lot of ways it doesn’t feel any riskier than sending your kids out to play around the block. As long as parents are prepared to learn the ropes of online gaming, it can provide a genuine lifeline for kids in lockdown. For many – including Claire – it already has: “I honestly don’t know where we would have been in terms of our mental health without technology.”