More and more children are playing video games online, but parents don't seem to be taking much notice, according to new research from the Entertainment Software Association of Canada.
Seventy-seven per cent of young people surveyed between the ages of six and 17 reported playing games online, with the majority saying they did so weekly. However, only five per cent of parent gamers said they believed their children accessed online games.
"That was very surprising to us," ESAC executive director Danielle LaBossiere Parr told reporters at a briefing in Toronto on Tuesday. "We need to get the message out to parents that they should know what their kids are doing."
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The findings were part of a full report on gaming demographics to be released in October. ESAC, the video game industry's lobby group, polled more than 3,500 gamers through online focus groups run by NPD Group, the consumer trends research firm.
The discrepancy in how parents believe their children are playing video games and what they are actually doing is important because in many cases, game ratings don't apply to online use. Most PC and console games come with age recommendations from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, the industry's self-regulating body.
Many such games come with a warning that board ratings don't apply once players go online. Joining online games against strangers can expose players to foul language, or they can be fooled into revealing personal information.
LaBossiere Parr said the best deterrent against such abuses is for parents to monitor how their children are playing games and to use the various filters built into some of the hardware and software. Microsoft's Windows features several filters that parents can use to limit what kinds of games kids can play, and for how long, for example.
LaBossiere Parr rejected the idea that video game companies should build such controls into their products.
"That's better done at the infrastructure level than in individual games."
Sidneyeve Matrix, an assistant professor in media and film at Queen’s University, said online gaming is a form of social networking, so parents need to treat it much like they do their children's use of Facebook or MySpace.
"They need to have those same conversations," she said.
Matrix also said game designers should build in more controls, such as options to mute other players, which some games already have.
The ESAC survey also found that 93 per cent of adult gamers found the ESRB ratings useful in deciding on games for their children. About 81 per cent of respondents felt confident that the ratings accurately reflected the appropriateness of the games for their respective age groups.
About 77 per cent of parent gamers reported they always check the ratings before buying, an increase of six per cent from a similar survey a year ago.
The poll also found that 90 per cent of children between the ages of six and 12 had played a video game in the past four weeks, while 47 per cent played a few days a week. About 53 per cent of respondents of all ages had played in the past four weeks, while about 47 per cent of all households said they had at least one game console.
The survey is accurate to within 1.6 per cent, 19 times out of 20, the association said.