As an editor, I am always looking for story ideas. I didn’t expect it to come from one of our staffers.
“I feel bad for Finn* today,” our producer Rachel* said in an email, referring to her 12-year-old son, who — like most kids — is spending more time at home and on his devices since the pandemic began. Over the summer, with little outdoor activities to keep him busy, Finn spent 4-5 hours a day in his Brooklyn, N.Y., home, building a “world” in Minecraft, the immersive video game.
For the uninitiated, a “world” in Minecraft is an elaborate digital empire, where users can design Lego-like kingdoms with everything from cactus farms to whale sculptures (here’s a helpful list of 1001 ideas to build in Minecraft). I don’t pretend to understand, but I trust Rachel when she says Finn’s world was “his life’s work.” And then, disaster: Finn innocently “let a stranger into his Minecraft world,” she recounted. “This guy then went and stole Finn’s Minecraft world and then deleted it! Finn was sobbing. He was so heartbroken. I am so angry about it and sad for him.”
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Parenting During a Pandemic
Nobody said pandemic parenting was easy, what with all the unchecked screen time and addictive games that include — aside from Minecraft — Roblox and Fortnite. But online predators and cyberbullying on top of things? This seems too much.
Surely, I figured, some entrepreneurial women are figuring out ways to deal with this. Surely?
I checked with Elizabeth Englander, founder of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University and an expert in bullying. “Any time kids interact in a place where adults aren’t supervising, there is always the potential for problems — that’s true in real life and it’s true online,” she says. That said, “the dynamic is a little different online. It’s easier for people to be mean in general.”
But is there anyone or any organization helping to protect kids against nasty or predatory behavior in gaming? “I honestly don’t know of any,” she said. “Most parent organizations focus on things like ‘how to control how often kids go online.’ They’re not so focused on how to [monitor] something like gaming, specifically.”
For its part, Minecraft, now owned by Microsoft, publishes safety rules on its site, including how to block, report or mute someone. Its Better Together update in 2017 gave parents more control over how children play. I reached out to Minecraft to ask how parents can handle troubling situations, but the company did not immediately return a request for comment.
Englander directed me to a Facebook group called “Parenting in a Tech World,” which describes itself as a group “that helps parents navigate the ever-changing landscape of raising kids in the digital age.” The group has close to 90,000 members, with more than 5,000 joining this past September alone.
A Forum for Parents
Titania Jordan, chief marketing office for Bark, a parenting control app, created the “Parenting in a Tech World” group in December 2017. Four Bark employees are dedicated to it, although Jordan stresses that the company views it as a community forum and avoids pushing its products or services on it.
“I knew we needed a community, for a variety of reasons,” she said. “We as parents and caregivers are going through a tough time. Unlike breastfeeding or sleeping through the night or potty training, where [other] parents with decades of experience could give us wisdom, we had to figure this out together.”
According to a list of searchable topics on the group’s page, parents post the most questions or concerns about “Gaming & Consoles,” followed by “iOS Screen Time/Restrictions” and “Video/Messaging/Communications Apps.” That largely tracks an explosion in popularity of the video gaming industry since the pandemic began, as kids stay home from school and look for new ways to connect. Some 2.7 billion people are expected to play video games in 2020, spending a projected $159.3 billion in the process, according to market researcher Newzoo.
Bark was founded in 2015 by Brian Bason, a dad of two who worked for Twitter but was concerned about keeping kids safe in a digital world. Bark uses artificial intelligence to scan social-media platforms, text messages and emails for potential issues like cyberbullying, sexual predators, adult content, depression, suicidal thoughts and more.
But Bark and other parental-control apps, including startup Qustodio and industry veteran NetNanny (founded in 1995), have limitations, particularing with gaming platforms. Bark, for instance, can monitor numerous apps like Instagram, Snapchat and Whatsapp, but not Minecraft or Fortnite. “They have not opened their API to us,” Jordan says, referring to systems that allow outside programmers to access data.
That’s unfortunate, she adds, as video games can expose children to explicit language, violent subject matter and — increasingly — predatory behavior.
“Cyberbullying is the new normal, and I would call destroying a child’s Minecraft world a form of cyberbullying,” she says. Predators can be peers or adults. “There are so many adults who look to communicate with children for nefarious purposes — more than you might think,” she adds.
As the world continues to deal with Covid-19, and more kids turn to gaming for escapism or friendship, there will be a need for entrepreneurs to develop safety resources for parents — even if it’s unclear what shape or form that will take. Perhaps it could look like Sandy Hook mom Scarlett Lewis’ nonprofit, the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement, which tries to prevent violence in school by providing free social and emotional learning programs to schools. With kids’ emotional well-being at state, and many schools closing just days after re-opening, the stakes have never been higher.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.