If your child uses a tablet or console to play games, there’s a good chance they’ll be playing online.

An online game is one where the entire game or some part of it is played over the internet. Online games are played using internet-connected devices such as a smartphone, tablet, console (Xbox or PlayStation) or PC, connecting using wi-fi, or (in the case of a phone or tablet) mobile data.

Online games allow you to play in real-time with people all over the world. So instead of playing against the game, you can play with real people.

According to Ofcom, 76% of children aged 12-15 and 62% of children aged 8-11 play games online.

Perhaps more worrying for parents is that a quarter of 12-15-year-olds have played games online with one or more people they have not met in person.

How does online gaming work?

Games consoles such as the Xbox and the PlayStation have huge online communities - called Xbox Live and PlayStation Network respectively - where gamers can play against each other and communicate through headsets.

The majority of modern games have an online mode of some description and some games are famous for their online modes, such as the Call of Duty first-person shooter series. In November 2015, fans of Call of Duty: Black Ops III racked up 75 million hours online within just three days of its launch.

Facebook has a thriving online gaming community which allows you to invite others to play games such as Farmville and Candy Crush by sending an invitation.

With over 100 million players worldwide, World of Warcraft is a hugely popular PC role-playing game (RPG) where gamers pick characters and meet others in a virtual world.

Another popular online game is Minecraft, which has over 100 million users on PC, Xbox, PlayStation, Android and iOS versions.

Internet Matters, a not for profit organisation dedication to providing information to keep children safe online has lots of useful facts about different types of online gaming, check it out here.

Girl in chair playing Minecraft

Risks of online gaming

Playing games online can be great fun for your child, but as a parent it’s worth being aware of the potential risks:

1. Bullying: When your child plays a game online, they may play with people they don’t know. These people could call your child names, bullying them or ‘griefing’, which is when bullying tactics are used to win games.

2. Inappropriate content:  If your child plays with older children they may encounter swearing or talk about subjects they don’t understand and find upsetting.

Many online games include adult themes such as war and death, swearing and sexual content that won’t be suitable for every child.

3. Grooming:  The anonymity of the internet allows people to hide behind fake identities. Your child may think they are playing with someone who is not who they say they are. Adults may try to develop a relationship with a child through online gaming that could have dangerous consequences.  Incidences like this are fortunately rare.

4. Hidden costs: Some online games are free to play, but developers encouraging players to pay to upgrade weapons or skip levels.

Upgrades can range from a few pence to hundreds of pounds. Within the mobile app Smurfs Village, for instance, ‘A Wagon of Smurfberries’ costs over £69; if you child buys it accidentally, you’ll get the bill.

Read more about how to protect yourself from unwanted bills in our article: What is free to play gaming?

Tips to ensure your child is online gaming safety

Online gaming can help your child to learn, explore and develop creative skills and if you follow these simple tips you can help them do this safely.

1. Check game ratings: Games are given a Pan European Gaming Information (PEGI) rating that will give you some indication of the suitability of a game for your child.

Eight areas - drugs, fear, discrimination, bad language, gambling, sex, violence, and online gameplay with other people - are considered to produce age ratings of 3, 7, 12, 16 or 18. Find out more about what the games ratings mean.

Use these ratings to make an informed choice about whether a game is suitable for your child. Remember the ages are a guide, you know your son or daughter better than anyone, if they are old enough, but sensitive, the game might not be suitable.

2. Talk to your child:  Communicate with your son or daughter about potential dangers online so that they understand the risks. Find out what they play online and who they talk to.

If you ban a game, talk to your child about why you don’t think it’s suitable so they understand your reasoning.

Family playing games console in living room

3. Set restrictions: Decide how long your child is allowed to play online in a day or a week. If you have a younger child, consider letting them play in the front room rather in their bedroom so you can keep an eye on what they are playing.

4. Keep information private:  Encourage your child not to give out personal details, such as their email, date of birth and address that could be used to locate them.

Make sure they use a gamer name that doesn’t give too much information away, for instance OrangeGremlin is a safer name than Matthew95Bristol.

Encourage them to remain friends with other players only within the game, and not on other social networks like Facebook or Instagram.

5. Parental controls: Most gadgets have parental controls designed to help you restrict the type of content your child can access.

Internet Matters has an interactive tool with instructions to help you activate parental controls for different devices in your home including consoles and tablets. Check it out here.

[Related story: How to make gadgets safe for children]

6. Report abuse: If your child encounters bully or abuse online, don’t be afraid to report the perpetrators.

7. Turn off the internet connection: Stop younger children going online and accidentally spending money by turning on flight mode on smartphones and tablets.

  • Apple allows you to turn off in-app purchases for iPads and iPhones, find out more.
  • Google lets you add a PIN code that needs to be applied when buying digital content, find out more.

8. Join in: You might feel that your gaming years are long gone, but the best way to find out what your child is up to is to play along with them. They are probably keen to show you what they are doing (and possibly beat you!) and you’ll have a greater understanding of what they are up to and how the device or game they are using works.

Our article: What to do if your child gets into trouble online contains advice and contact information in case something goes wrong and you can find out more at internetmatters.org/advice/online-gaming

For a comprehensive and easy-to-use resource of the most up-to-date information for keeping your child safe online, check out Internet Matters.