Keeping an Eye on the Digital Playground: A Task for Youth Leaders

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Teen playing World of WarcraftAdults who lead activities for young people may easily observe them during program hours but may not be as aware of their activities in another gathering place -- the digital playground. 

The online world of video games and virtual environments is a fertile place for kids and teens to interact. And just as conflicts spill over from real playgrounds and gathering places into school, they also spill over from these digital meeting places, according to a recent report created for the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance. 

"Youth leaders need to dive into the world kids are engaged in online to better understand the pitfalls," said Robert D'Ovidio, associate professor of criminal justice at Drexel University and co-author of the report "Real Crimes in Virtual Worlds." 

They "need to understand the environment in which these kids are playing," he said. 

The report was created by D'Ovidio along with private software contractor, Drakontas LLC, and aimed at school administrators, school police officers and law enforcement agencies.  

The majority of young people's socializing now occurs online, the report said.   

A Pew Research report in 2008 found that 99 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls played video games and that game play spanned all socioeconomic groups. It found that teens encountered both pro-social and anti-social behavior online. 

D'Ovidio said that when anti-social behavior such as bullying occurred it often did not get reported to adults. "Kids aren't coming to adults to disclose victimization," he said.  

Video games and virtual worlds allow players to interact with each other through text, voice and video messaging. Games also have discussion forums where players can post messages. And kids also, of course, are communicating online through texting, social media and email. 

Among the popular gaming consoles are Microsoft Xbox360, Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii U, the report says. Popular virtual worlds include “World of Warcraft” by Blizzard Entertainment and “League of Legends” by Riot Games, it adds.  

To engage kids in a discussion and to become better informed about their online activities, the report authors say adults can ask: 

  • Do you play video games or play in virtual worlds? 

  • What kind of games do you play? Role-playing ones? Shooter games? Do you play any multiplayer games? Which ones? 

  • How many hours a week do you play? At night? During the day? 

  • Do you talk to your friends or strangers within these games? 

  • Have you ever seen or heard anything offensive when playing? Have you ever felt threatened? 

  • Have you ever reported what you saw or heard? If not, why not? If so, how did you report it and what happened? 

Adults need to be pro-active, D'Ovidio said. 

Photo by Kevin Buckstiegel | Flickr