With 4 lads growing up in my home, you can imagine that there’s been a reasonable amount of gaming. It’s a complex world to understand, and like with all things internet related, there’s the good and the bad to think about and understand.

The skills needed for gaming are complex ones – it’s like thinking about the skills you’d need to be an elite chess player or sports person. It involves and develops lots of critical and strategic thinking about the game and use of team members. If you have an avid gamer, take the time to get into their world and see just how skilful they are.

However, when social and sexual development crashes its way into this world of our tweens and teens, it can become toxic and abusive – especially for our girls.

Let’s understand the core gaming characteristics

By taking a quick look at the core characteristics that fuel the world of gaming, it’s easier to understand where it can get tricky for girls. Dominance and competition are right at the centre of these characteristics. There’s actual skill involved, and then there’s a lot of bluff and bluster. Bluff – how good I am. Bluster – how moronic you are. All of this can be delivered in quite ghastly, mean ways.

In general, boys have a lot more social training to take this stuff on the chin. They engage in game play on the field at school for far longer than girls. By about Year 3, girls are much more like to engage in talk-based interactions than in the physical argy-bargy of school yard competitive action. Out there on the school field, boys are comparing skills, building themselves up, putting each other down and generally learning how to ‘bloke it up’ in this space.

Enter the world of gaming

Our family often has conversations about just how toxic gaming becomes for so many girls. Our boys talk about how the dominance and competition takes the shape of derogatory and mostly inappropriately sexualised content when girls are in the gaming arena.

It’s a cesspool of sexualised and abusive comments, spamming with inappropriate pictures, chest-beating and showing off, and targeting in games. “Doxxing” (yes, another new word) is common – finding out about the girl and then posting her personal content from other apps and platforms in the gaming chat – even revealing her location when it can be found.

Let’s teach our sons

Just like in any other aspect of life, we have to teach our boys about respecting others and their boundaries, taking responsibility for their words and actions and not caving to peer pressure.

With our tween-aged lads and up, we also have to remember that irritating little pogo-stick in their pants that turns them into hormonal ding-dongs in this period of their lives – often responsible for some poor decision making, especially when it comes to those first sexual awakenings.

So, our education of our lads starts by pointing out, and discussing, shameful toxic male behaviour. There are plenty of examples in the media – schoolboys on buses being revolting, footballers perpetrating sexual violence. Use these sorts of examples to be curious and build empathy. Ask your son these sorts of questions:

  • Have you seen or heard this before – when boys/men are inappropriate about girls/women?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • I wonder how you might feel if someone what saying that about your mum/sister/cousin?
  • Is it hard to not go along with the group when they get carried away and stuff that starts as silly ends up as sexual?
  • What would be a good way to make it stop?

Bring that into gaming. Read through some of the chats that happen alongside games with your son if there’s a girl involved. Apply some of the ‘curious’ questions above to that context. Have definite rules of engagement – what’s above the line and what’s below the line. Make these rules clear. Write them down and stick them up. Refresh them often. Have consequences for ANY disrepectful behaviour towards girls and women online – nipping it in the bud is much, much easier than trying to claw it back when it’s gone too far.

Talk empathetically about how easy it is to get carried away – especially on-screen when the real flesh-and-bones person isn’t there in front of you – and how to pull up and out of that pack-mentality as soon as possible. If you have an older teen son who is no longer as willing to engage in this sort of dialogue and to be open about showing you his gaming chat, continue to have regular conversations about your family standards and expectations about the treatment of women – online and off. Throw in the occasional story you’ve ‘heard’ and ask your son to share his observations and responses.

Let’s teach our daughters

We can, and MUST, empower our girls with skills if they’re avid gamers – especially as they move into their tween and teen years. Shoulder partner your daughter while she’s gaming and try and understand the thrill and skill of the world she’s in. Remind her that’s she’s strong and confident and that no one has the right to put her down, harass her (sexually or otherwise), or to ask her for pictures or contact details. Encourage her to think past wanting to gain inclusion and acceptance into staying safe and not sacrificing herself or her standards to achieve that.

Then, of course, there’s the every-child-needed skills of reporting, taking screenshots and being able to talk to you without fear of you removing her from a world that she loves in response to her disclosures.

All across the world there are cyber-abuse reporting organisations who are incredibly helpful in helping families to navigate the murky waters of online abuse when it happens. Here in Australia the Office of the eSafety Commissioner is a great start in understanding what’s out there that can help when situations get out of control and really challenging to know what to do next.

It starts with awareness

If you have a tween or teen who games, it is likely that you may well be oblivious to the dark underbelly of this world when it comes to the abuse of girls and women in this space. Why? Well, who in their right mind would allow their son or daughter to marinate in this toxic culture knowingly – and so our young people try and keep it on the low down just in case we take away their gaming time. Like we always say, digital-life is here to stay, so we need to educate, educate, educate so that our young people are skilled enough to cope and know that they can talk to us about anything that happens without fear of losing access.

The world of gaming is a fascinating one – highly skilled, highly engaging, lots of fun and connection – and sadly, highly toxic when girls become the target of boys. Let’s talk to our girls and boys about their gaming and their behaviour around each other in this space.

Useful resources

The Cyber Safety Lady – Leonie know this world inside out and is so wise when it comes to advice on children and gaming.

Office of the eSafety Commissioner – interesting stats, facts and how-to’s in managing children and online gaming.

DiGii Social – an experiential social media platform built specifically for Year 5 and 6 students that teaches all the skills to be safe, civil and savvy online.