Do Video Games Promote Cyberbullying in Elementary School?

There’s plenty of aggression to be found in video and online games. First person shooters, war games, explosions…..You name it, and you can probably find it on a trendy game.  These games are extremely popular, with two-thirds of high school boys reporting that they play such games in my research.  But game-playing isn’t just a teenage pursuit.  Over 90% of 8-to-11-year-olds were interacting online, usually by playing games, in my 2012 study of more than 11,000 elementary-aged children.

Game-playing among younger children often doesn’t feature aggression so conspicuously. Further, it’s true that teens, who play more aggressive games, also cyberbully each other more often. But does cyberbullying actually happen more frequently within these more aggressive games? It seems intuitive to assume so, but surprisingly, my research found that this wasn’t the case. Several hundred teenage students reported that the most impactful cyberbullying they experienced during high school happened through text messaging, not through game-playing, which was actually the least likely place for cyberbullying.

Here’s the contrast. Cyberbullying may be much less common in elementary school, but when it does happen, it was most likely to happen during online game-playing. Over 60% of the elementary online incidents happened during game-play. Text-messaging might be a key venue for cyberbullying during high school, but it was involved in “only” 25% of elementary incidents. So the online games that younger children play may feature much less aggressive content, but despite that, they appear to be the most common source of cyberbullying between younger kids.

Does this mean that online games aimed at younger kids are risky? I think it’s important to remember that cyberbullying isn’t a common event during grades 3 to 5.  If your child can control who plays the game (e.g., if they set up their own server or game and can ban troublemakers), there’s an extra layer of protection. Your parental control software may or may not help with this issue (depending on what type you use), but it never hurts to remind players that parents may see what gets said (as a little extra deterrent).  The bottom line, though, is that simply because games for younger kids tend not to feature aggression as part of the game, that doesn’t mean that there’s zero risk of cyberbullying.  Of course, there’s never zero risk in any type of playing that happens with other human beings.

The good news is that the most effective teaching tool you have is something old-fashioned: talking.  Discuss with your children what games they play, and ask to see what it’s like to play them, now and then. Ask them what they enjoy, and what parts are most fun. Discuss how the other players behave, and debate different ways to respond if problems come up. If you have these conversations before there are any problems, then if a serious issue comes up, you’ll be the person that they’ll come to for help.  And that’s exactly what you want to hear.