In my 2008 report I made recommendations to help parents make informed decisions about which video games are appropriate for their children. Since then there has been significant progress, including:
- Work to establish a clearer system for the age classification of video games
- Robust legislation, which makes it possible for retailers to be prosecuted for the sale of age-restricted products to underage children
- Improved adherence to advertising guidelines by video games publishers.
During my first review I found that some parents did not consider video game classifications as seriously as film classifications, seeing video games as ‘just games’. I felt that having two sets of classification symbols on packaging had contributed to this attitude.
Following a full public consultation by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), a Bill is passing through Parliament to establish the Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) age rating system as the single system for video games classification in the UK.
I recommend that once the use of PEGI becomes law in the UK, companies associated with the video games industry, the online games industry, retailers, and the Government invest in raising public awareness of the new ratings system including through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UCCIS) public awareness campaign and UKCCIS one stop shop.
Having one system of video game classification will give parents a consistent experience, which they can use, along with their knowledge of their child, to make a judgement on which video games are appropriate. This work has been complemented by the updated PEGI labelling guidelines.
Since my 2008 review, the video games industry has grown and new high-profile family focused games have raised the profile of the sector further. To reflect this, video games representatives should be prioritised when filling vacancies on the UKCCIS executive board.
The Advertising Standards Authority has found that 99 per cent of the video games sector adheres to the advertising codes. This good work has been built on by the code-writing bodies producing new guidance to help video games advertisers interpret the rules and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) proposing a new scheduling rule to ensure age-restricted video games adverts are not placed around programming aimed at children on TV. Going forward, DCMS and UKCCIS should work together to ensure that work informs and is informed by other work on child digital safety.
Online and gaming
It is important that families have up-to-date advice about new ways to engage in gaming.
The guidelines on safer online gaming are a good example of this. This advice should be built on to encompass publishers and hosts of casual online games (games which are free to users as they are hosted on sites funded through advertising) and to look at the issues of bullying and harassment via interactive gaming and casual online gaming.
I recommend that the UKCCIS executive board commission the video games working group to examine and report back by September 2010 on whether a code of conduct supported by independent review for online and casual gaming is needed.
In the UK, 91 per cent of children and young people aged 12 to 17 have their own mobile phone and 12 per cent say they access the internet through their phone. All UK mobile phone networks offer a level of filtering which can be activated when the phone is purchased or later by phoning customer services. The level of filtering is based on whether the registered user is over 18 or not. However, it is questionable whether parents are aware of this and take advantage of it.
If a child accesses the internet using WiFi they by-pass any filtering which may be switched on at a network level. This means, as wifi enables mobile network filters to be bypassed, and because few portable devices have parental controls built into the device itself, parents cannot secure their children’s use of the internet over wifi. Handset manufacturers need to look at integrating parental controls in their handsets.
I recommend that mobile and internet-enabled device manufacturers are brought into UKCCIS discussions on how parental controls can be improved through the video games and industry working groups and take responsibility for building parental controls into all of their devices.
Parental controls and games consoles
In her recent review of the sexualisation of young people, Dr Linda Papadopoulos recommended that video game consoles should be sold with the parental controls switched on. I recognise the reasons behind this recommendation, particularly given concerns that many parents may not understand how to operate these controls and may not be in a position to have informed conversations with children around staying safe online.
However, I stand by my 2008 conclusion that switching parental controls on by default could contribute towards parents not engaging in, or considering, their children’s safety whilst using their games console and being lulled into a false sense of security that the default setting meant that their child was ‘safe’. Children and young people can just switch the parental controls off without their parent’s knowledge or understanding and play on an unsecured device.
Instead, I believe parents need support in understanding how to set up controls carefully (for example, not sharing the password with the child) and how to talk to their children about digital safety.
I propose that the UKCCIS video games working group work to embed awareness of these issues and the PEGI classification system within the UKCCIS public awareness campaign, as well as supporting the video games industry in its own public awareness raising activities.
I suggest that the commitment in the UKCCIS strategy, which stated that UKCCIS will keep the parental control systems available for games consoles under review, should be extended to include all portable media devices.
I recommend that by September 2010, in relation to all internet-enabled devices, the UKCCIS executive board commission the video games and industry working groups to:
a) Decide whether we need minimum standards for parental controls, for example clear, understandable set up procedures, password protection
b) Examine whether there should be an independent review process for parental control standards
c) Work with the public awareness working group to ensure that awareness of video gaming parental controls is included in the UKCCIS public awareness campaign.
To read the full 'Do we have safer children in a digital world?' A review progress since the 2008 Byron Review, click here.