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The Online Danger That Most Parents Don't Know About

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Recently, one of my teenage clients showed up to their therapy session excited to tell me all about their new iPhone. After showing me the phone and telling me about all the apps he was planning on downloading onto it, he surprised me by telling me that his parents didn't buy it for him - he had earned all the money himself by playing video games.

Did he win a tournament or something I asked him? No, he told me. He earned the money through selling virtual goods to other gamers online.

Virtual goods are those little items that are awarded to the gamer when they reach a certain level or solve a particular challenge, and some of these virtual goods can take hours of gameplay to obtain. And, as the Law of supply and demand goes, the harder or longer an item is to earn, the more someone else is willing to pay good money for it in order to bypass the time and effort needed to earn that virtual good for themselves.

This client isn't the only client of mine who has told me that they've engaged in this business transaction - I have heard this tale from many adolescents that I come into contact with as a child psychologist. Shockingly, many teenagers all across the country are playing video games for hours, winning virtual goods in the process, and then selling these items for a profit.

Why This Is A Dangerous Practice

On the surface, we want to encourage our kids to be entrepreneurial and responsible for earning money on their own, but there are some obvious (and some not-so-obvious) dangers associated with selling online virtual goods.

  • It takes time away from family time and homework. In order to earn the virtual goods, kids need to play the online games for hours, which is time that they could be spending on studying, engaging in face-to-face social activities, or interacting with family members.
  • It puts them in contact with strangers. My understanding is that when kids have a virtual item they want to sell, they make this known in the chat areas of the game. When another gamer is interested, they will contact the seller and exchange payment through an online payment service. The seller then transfers ownership of the virtual item to the seller. The child selling the virtual item must give out some personal information to the stranger buying the item in order for the transaction to process. This can become a very dangerous situation.
  • They can be cheated. As far as my research has uncovered, there is no one overseeing the fairness of these transactions - certainly not the game owners themselves. Most of the time, parents aren't even aware that their kids are selling these virtual items so they aren't able to protect their child during this risky transaction. The kids are basically on their own when conducting the sales of these products.
  • It gives kids a sense of overblown importance. My client was very quick to point out to me that because he was earning money, that gaming could take priority over all other activities in his life. This meant that his grades, social life, and family relationships suffered. It appeared that earning money in this way made my client feel like like an adult and this emboldened him to make unwise decisions for himself.
  • This activity can give kids an unrealistic idea of the future. Many young kids don't understand how much an adult needs to earn in order to pay all their bills. Some kids might think that earning and selling virtual goods online is a viable way of earning an adult income and, therefore, might stop putting appropriate effort into getting ready for college or another more practical career because they plan on gaming for profit as an adult. This seemed to be the case for my young client.
How Parents Can Monitor This Activity

In order to protect your child from this online danger, I recommend the following:

  • Make sure you know what games your child is playing online and if there is a virtual goods component to it
  • Talk to your kids about the dangers of selling and/or giving away these virtual goods to strangers
  • Monitor your child's computer use for excessive gaming - spending hours playing a certain video game could indicate that they are trying to earn a large amount of virtual goods to sell
  • Take note if your child suddenly has expensive items that you didn't pay for - this could be a sign that they are earning money in a way that you don't know about

Finally, the best advice that I can give to you to protect your child from this online danger is the advice I give to all parents, regardless of the parental problem: 1) be present so your child can have access to you when they need you; 2) project an empathetic and open attitude so your child feels comfortable talking to you about difficult topics; and 3) when problems arise stay calm and work through the problem together.

To learn more about Modern Parenting, visit my blog at Parenting The Modern Family.

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