Cyberbullying pushed its way into the UK news agenda this week, following the suicide of teenager Hannah Smith after she was bullied by a number of users on Ask.fm. It's not a new problem or even one that (as far as we're aware) has intensified recently, but it is one that's temporarily captured the roving eye of the mainstream moralising media. This article just tells you how to avoid it, what to do if you encounter it, how to report it, and how to help out.
It's written chiefly for parents with little or no experience of videogames and online communities, and doesn't aim to be the last word on the subject. Those who already enjoy videogames with their children may want to add their own thoughts and suggestions in the comments.
Bullying on Xbox Live
Xbox Live can be a place where you encounter bullying, but it's relatively rare. More frequent is casually abusive language, via headset chat or Xbox Live messages containing video, images and text. The hot-points are certain first-person shooters, which seem to have developed a separate smack-talking culture, and are easily-accessible to children. While most children are resilient enough to cope with the language and taunting, after the initial shock - and often come away with their grasp of Anglo-Saxon phonemes *wonderfully* enhanced - it's natural for parents to worry.
How to Avoid It
You, yourself, are the first filter to stop your children entering scenarios where they might encounter offensive or bullying language. Take responsibility for what your children play, as it's easy to overestimate their maturity. If you think they're tough enough to cope, great. If not, heed the PEGI rating.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II, like most of shooters, is rated 18 or higher. It contains scenes of torture, raw language, blood and fairly nasty plot twists - just in the single-player. Remember that downloadable games - particularly indie games - can also be adult-rated.
Even if they're playing a game within their age rating, you should occasionally sit with them and watch them play. Talk to them about it, play with them and generally show an interest in what they're doing and who they're playing with, just as you would if they were playing in the street.
Playing online is the real minefield though. Given the spectacular range and variety of human intelligence and personalities, it's not a surprise that you might find yourself playing alongside the sort of person you'd cross the road to avoid in real life. Even the relatively mild Halo (rated 16 in the UK) suffers from it, and developer 343 Industries itself has condemned the discriminatory language - sexist, homophobic and racist - some players have encountered in-game, seeking lifetime bans for anyone who uses it.
To play online, you should definitely be over the age rating - reporting abusive language or bullying is more difficult if your child shouldn't be playing the game anyway. Much of the community isn't, of course, but a conversation about the effectiveness of rating agencies is beyond the scope of this piece.
Avoiding By Blocking: The Cruder Path
If you're strapped for time to spend supervising your children as they play, consider using the Xbox 360's parental controls to restrict access to games and to Xbox Live. To turn it on, go to settings, then select Family. Select On to turn on Console Safety, then enter a four-action passcode, before hitting Save and Exit. From here, you can limit whether your children can play high-rated or unrated content, as well as completely restricting their access to Xbox Live.
Similarly, if you want to only hear from friends on Xbox Live, open Settings, select Privacy, then Change Settings, then Customize, then Voice and Text, then Friends Only. If a hostile player keeps showing up in your child's games, you should change your Game History setting to Friends Only too.