3 Chapter 3: Exploring the Ethical Considerations Regarding Video Games for School-Aged Children

Rob Hendrickson

The Rise of Video Games in a Digitalized World

Video games are a relatively new form of media that can dramatically influence the people who play them. The 1970s was the era of stand-up, coin-operated arcade games. With the introduction of the Atari 2600 in 1977 (Lacina, 2020), video games moved from purpose-built retail establishments into home living rooms. The popularity of video games for home use caused an explosion of home video consoles and eventually oversaturation (Lacina, 2020). In 1985 the Nintendo Entertainment System revived home gaming (Kohler, 2010) and forever changed the video game world.

Arcade games, early home console games, and early personal computer games were restricted to a single player or small group of players in the same area. According to Chikhani (2015), video games began to change with the introduction of multiplayer games, allowing people in different geographical locations to play together. In the 1970s and early 1980s, online multiplayer games like Empire—an eight-player turn-based game using the Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operation, or PLATO—were possible only using powerful computers, usually confined to universities. The introduction of powerful home computers in the mid-1980s extended the reach of multiplayer games, but it was not until the development of the local area network in the 1990s that these games began to take off. Multiplayer gameplay further expanded with the introduction of the internet, allowing truly diverse groups of people to play together in a virtual environment. However, the internet was not robust enough to support the aspirations of the gaming industry. The failure of the Sega Dreamcast, the first genuinely network-enabled console, demonstrated the infrastructure’s weaknesses.

In 2001, Runescape was released, marking the beginnings of a new era of gaming the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). As a free-to-play, multiplayer, sandbox-style game, Runescape began the evolution of video games to their current form (Grubb, 2017). Games had moved out of the home and entered the mobile stage. The first mobile game had been introduced in 1993, when IBM released the first smartphone, the Simon Personal Communicator, which was preloaded with a game called Scramble. Despite this, gaming on mobile devices was not a central selling point, and this innovation was not pursued (Paiva, 2020a). The 1999 launch of Wireless Application Protocol meant cell phones could receive data from a wireless network, allowing communication between devices. Game manufacturers began to exploit this feature to tap into a new market (Paiva, 2020b). As cell phones increased in popularity and cellular networks became more robust, game developers began investing in mobile gaming. The 2007 introduction of Apple’s iPhone, with its high-resolution screen, dramatically increased the playability and market reach of mobile gaming. The emergence of competitors, such as phones running the Google Android system, forced developers to incorporate more features, such as games, to draw in consumers. Games generally followed the free-to-play model introduced by Runescape and could reach many users in short periods. In 2016 the popular game Pokémon Go was downloaded 500 million times in the first three months of its release (Paiva, 2020c).

The evolution of games from dedicated retail arcades to home consoles, personal computers, and finally smartphones suggest that barriers to access and play games have decreased. The free-to-play business model, along with relatively inexpensive and powerful internet connections, indicate that upfront costs for games are also low. Despite the continuing existence of digital inequalities (Beaunoyer et al., 2020), video games can be accessed and played nearly anywhere by anyone with a cell phone. While the prevalence of video games has undoubtedly extended to all aspects of society, school-aged children have always been a target. Given the accessibility of video games, the question becomes one about ethical concerns, particularly for school-aged children. Do video games help children feel good about themselves?

Ethically, the relevance of video games is an issue of virtue. Holmes et al. (2018) explored virtue through a modern lens, and it is worth exploring if video games could also fall within the idea of a person living a good life. Virtue, they argued, is more personalized and should not be as defined as deontology or consequentialism, for instance. This is further reinforced by Aristotle’s ideas that formal rules do not lead to a good life; appreciation for aspects of life such as friendship and pleasure are more important (Kraut, 2018). From parents’ and caregivers’ perspectives, is it possible to view video gaming as a virtuous action, or is it merely a vice that should be discouraged or limited? Farrow’s (2016) framework for the ethics of open education is a valuable tool for evaluating the ethical considerations of parents and caregivers and deciding whether online video game play should be encouraged. Video games are a relatively new media and addressing these concerns is an important topic of discussion.

Ethical Considerations of the Positive Benefits of Video Games

The video game industry is massively profitable. In 2020 it overtook movies and sports combined in terms of profits, bringing in total revenue of US$179.7 billion. Of course, one must consider the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic on movie, sports, and video game revenues. However, the video game industry’s total revenue in 2019 was already a hefty US$150.2 billion (Witkowski, 2021). These mind-boggling numbers emphasize the fact that the video game industry is a for-profit business. It is in the companies’ best interest to produce video games that encourage consumers, including children, to keep playing, which reinforces the potential ethical concerns of video gaming as a vice.

Interestingly, individual skill level does not significantly factor into a child’s enjoyment and continued participation in video games. For instance, a design feature of MMORPGs is that they are practically never-ending; it is generally not possible to complete the game. However, players will continue to participate and achieve a sense of social community within the game even though they may never actually finish it; this applies to both expert and novice players (Badrinarayanan et al., 2015).

It is worth exploring the relationship between a child’s experience in a game and any social connections the child develops. Regardless of the player’s skill level or the fact the game will never finish, players develop a sense of identity and community while playing in the immersive worlds of video games. Kowert et al. (2014) studied this relationship by examining how children with high emotional sensitivity (ES), who would be considered shy, used video games socially, in contrast to children with low ES, who would be seen as more socially active. Notably, children considered to have high ES did not engage in online video games measurably more than did children with low ES. Kowert et al.’s work did identify that children with high ES would be more likely to transfer offline relationships to online environments. An essential issue is how children, particularly ones with high ES, may have trouble developing relationships offline and how online video games may better support their engagement in relationship building. Kowert et al. stated that children with high ES use online video games differently than do children with low ES. Children with high ES use video games’ social interaction features to develop and broaden their social circle by strengthening offline relationships.

Kowert et al.’s (2014) study occurred before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, their research points to the benefits of parents and caregivers permitting, and even encouraging, children to participate in online video games, particularly children with high ES who have difficulty developing and strengthening friendships in face-to-face social contexts. This conclusion then supports the idea that video games offer an ethical component of virtue, in particular the aspect of virtue related to development of friendships; online video games can help children, particularly those with high ES, feel good about themselves by allowing them to develop and strengthen relationships (Kraut, 2018). The view of video games as a vice, for this type of learner in this circumstance, can be disregarded.

Video games also offer benefits for family social interaction. A child’s social interactions should not only be with peers and should include parents, caregivers, and siblings as well. According to Bassiouni et al. (2019), parents and caregivers should act as gatekeepers when it comes to children’s consumption of video games, and they should play the games with the children as well. In their research, Bassiouni et al. found that family social interaction is a by-product of the convenience and ease of use of video games. However, positive social outcomes occur when parents and caregivers involve themselves with their children’s video gaming. Whether video games are better than other forms of interfamily activity was not addressed in this study. However, video games are one opportunity to strengthen social interaction within the family unit. By playing with their children, particularly in online games with people they do not know, adults can also help develop children’s digital literacies associated with gameplay.

Primack et al. (2012) explored the benefits of video games from a medical perspective. Their study focused on the potential therapeutic benefit of video gaming and included physical activity games for rehabilitation. They also investigated the use of video games for patients with long-term illness and the potential benefit of games as a pain management strategy. Despite limitations and lack of current research in the area, Primack et al. concluded that there are potential benefits of playing video games as a medical strategy. The therapeutic outcomes of playing video games extend beyond children and are not gender specific.

Avoiding Harm and Minimizing the Risks of Video Games

If the use of online video games should be permitted and, in fact, encouraged for children, what potential hazards exist? In particular, what are the hazards regarding informed consent (Farrow, 2016)? One concern is the issue of data collection and privacy. What information about their children are parents and guardians surrendering to the for-profit video game industry? The simple answer to that question is a great deal of data. Online video games use data collection for various purposes, and they make much of this data mandatory in order for users to be able to play the game. Video games can be a very personalized form of entertainment; therefore, the more data that video game producers have, the more tailored the games can become. The privacy issues raised by this should be a concern. Newman and Jerome (2014) outlined a variety of reasons that developers collect data from players and categorized types of data as follows:

  • “Real-world” data includes information about how the player uses a controller for console game systems, for instance, but also includes more advanced information such as head movements in virtual reality systems.
  • Social data includes information about a player’s interactions with other players through the gaming system.

Player behaviour includes information on how the player interacts within the gaming environment. The recording of every single interaction that a player makes within a game is possible, according to Newman and Jerome (2014). This information is used to predict player personality types by analyzing what they focus on in the game. Further, this category of data can include financial information—for instance, whether players will pay real-world money to more easily achieve a game goal.

How this data is collected and then used should be a concern for all parents and caregivers. They need to explore the user agreements and privacy policies of video game companies. Using the popular online game Roblox as an example, its privacy policy states explicitly in Section 7, Information Sharing, that Roblox “doesn’t sell your information to other companies for them to use as they want” (Roblox, 2021). The fact that information is not sold is potentially reassuring because the data collected by the game is extensive and includes the ability to track the “real-time or precise geolocation” of the user (Roblox, 2021). It is possible to disable this feature through device settings, which respects players’ autonomy related to their data and enables privacy and data security (Farrow, 2016).

Of concern for parents and caregivers is the other people that children will be interacting with while playing the game. An online game has the potential to include anyone, so how can children be protected from questionable content or cyberbullying? Several examples highlight strategies for protecting users. Roblox, for instance, contains features that can filter inappropriate content and personal identifiers. For players under the age of 12, this content is filtered automatically, and older children can adjust the content filters. Users can report abuse to moderators and block other players who are problematic (Roblox, n.d.). Parents and caregivers should discuss with children how to identify questionable content and what they should do when they witness it.

Other concerns for parents and caregivers is the potentially adverse effects of children’s use of electronic devices and the amount of screen time. Such concerns fall within the realm of avoiding harm and minimizing risk (Farrow, 2016). Nagata et al. (2020) discussed how excessive screen time is associated with health risks for obesity, high blood pressure, the development of a sedentary lifestyle, and more. In the context of online schools or during times of crisis when there are social distancing measures, the use of screens cannot be eliminated; however, it can be managed (Nagata et al., 2020). The mitigation of the risks associated with screen time through specific daily allowances of time for screens has largely been discarded for school-aged children. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s (2020) still recommends as little screen time as possible for children under 18 months and the use of screens only for video chatting with an adult, not playing video games. Video games are also not recommended for children from 18 to 24 months, with screens used only to watch educational videos with adult supervision. Children from 2 to 5 should limit noneducational screen time, including video games, to a maximum of 1 hour per weekday and 3 hours on weekends.

For school-aged children who are completing schoolwork from home (online school, home school, etc.), screen-time management for educational or recreational uses becomes a critical parental or caregiver responsibility. Nagata et al. (2020) discussed how although screen time for children has increased, minimizing the adverse effects of screen time through proper management is possible. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2020) recommends a screen-time plan for families, encouraging positive screen-time use. Parents and caregivers should:

  • be aware of children’s online activities,
  • model good behaviour and responsible use of screen time,
  • discuss online advertising,
  • support activities that do not include screens, and
  • be aware of parental controls and discuss online privacy and safety.

Parents and caregivers should not ignore the potential social benefits of screen time. The development of strategies associated with screens will allow the realization of the potential benefits of allowing children to socialize online, for instance, through video game play.

Internet gaming disorder is also a concern when allowing children to play online video games. In their early work on game addiction, Lemmens et al. (2009) listed seven criteria, based on similar criteria for gambling addiction, to address the frequency of this disorder. Their study of Dutch children found as low as 2% to as high as 9% demonstrated problematic use of video games. More recent studies by Liu et al. (2020) have validated this measure. The probability of internet gaming disorder among children varies widely, ranging from 1.6% in the Netherlands to 15.6% for high-school-aged students in Hong Kong. As such, parental supervision and monitoring of children’s activities online should occur. Like all activities, video game play should occur with awareness and some moderation, and if problematic behaviour occurs, intervention is required.

A criticism of online games is the potential for predatory revenue-generation schemes. King and Delfabbro (2018) studied the use of “loot boxes” as a strategy to monetize free-to-play online games. These games are potentially predatory because players do not know the game’s actual cost until they are deeply committed to the game. Also, they tend to favour the use of real-world money to achieve goals within the game instead of skill or strategy. Loot boxes are a randomized collection of virtual items purchased with real-world money, which can be considered a form of online gambling, as the player will have to purchase the boxes repeatedly to acquire the desired virtual reward. The potential profit cannot be understated. According to King and Delfabbro, Activision Blizzard recorded US$4 billion in 2017 from in-game purchases. The current lack of regulation in many countries means that parents and caregivers must educate children about this profit scheme. The pattern of behaviour regarding in-game purchases can become similar to that of gambling addictions, with financial and mental repercussions (King & Delfabbro, 2018).

Of concern for parents and caregivers is questionable content, including violence, associated with many video games. Is playing violent video games, for instance, linked to increased aggression in children? Greitemeyer and Mügge (2014) explored this issue and also asked whether prosocial video games positively influence players. Violent video games primarily focus on harming characters, whereas prosocial games focus on assisting characters. They concluded that video games, both violent and prosocial, can have a positive social influence, which suggests that parents’ and caregivers’ guidance is necessary regarding what type of video games children play to emphasis the social benefits. A more recent study by Przybylski and Weinstein (2019) reinforced this study by suggesting the influence of violent video games on youth has been overstated.

In North America, the rating of video games is conducted by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), which, it is worth noting, is not a government organization and demonstrates how the video game industry self-regulates. The ESRB rating system standardizes game ratings and clarifies age appropriateness (see Table 1). The ratings also contain notes about elements of the game, such as whether there are in-game purchases and whether these include randomized items (loot boxes), and whether the game shares the user’s location.

Table 3.1 ESRB Ratings, Adapted from Ratings guide, by ESRB, 2021b (https://www.esrb.org/ratings-guide). 
Rating Description
Everyone Content is generally suitable for all ages. May contain minimal cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or infrequent use of mild language.
Everyone 10+ Content is generally suitable for ages 10 and up. May contain more cartoon, fantasy or mild violence and/or minimal suggestive themes.
Teen Content is generally suitable for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humour, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language.
Mature 17+ Content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.
Adults Only 18+ Content suitable only for adults ages 18 and up. May include prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content, and/or gambling with real currency.
Rating Pending Not yet assigned a final ESRB rating.

Parents and caregivers therefore have the responsibility of ensuring the appropriateness of video games for their children. In addition to checking the ESRB rating, they can also view widely available advertising trailers for the games. It is worth noting that the advertising trailer’s rating and the game’s ESRB rating may be different.

A Holistic Approach to Encouraging Video Games

For people who do not regularly play video games, including many adults, the attraction can be hard to understand—and from an ethical perspective, the inexperienced or casual observer may view video games as a vice, a guilty pleasure, and a distraction from the real world. However, video games can have an impactful influence on a person’s identity. According to Murphy (2004), video game design is similar to that of movies, because it draws the viewer into an alternative reality. Video games take this process and further extend the connection to the user in the real world. The ability to interact with the character and the environment, and the use of real-world feedback controls, such as with PlayStation’s DualShock controllers, allow the player to physically feel the game’s influence in their reality.

For Murphy (2004), this connection to the game world and the characters who inhabit it becomes an essential part of the player’s identity. Does the player lose the ability to distinguish between reality and the fantasy of the game? If video game consumption is to be encouraged, this distinction must be addressed as a form of media literacy. This is especially so given recent developments in video games’ immersive characteristics, such as virtual reality headsets. Considering the development of media literacies related to video games should be an essential factor when allowing children to play video games. In a more recent study, Rivera et al. (2016) concluded that children’s attitudes toward negative aspects of video games can be changed, with lifestyle being a significant factor in their development of media literacy. Children with pre-existing poor-quality relationships, what Rivera et al. described as fractured relationships, tended to reject media literacy regarding, for instance, violence in video games. Children with pre-existing positive relationships, defined as communicative, tended to accept media literacy intervention and moderated their habits regarding violent video game consumption. Factors other than video game consumption habits play a role in determining the appropriateness of video games, particularly violent ones for children. Rivera et al. encouraged further research in the usefulness of media literacies for children who play video games. They concluded with the recommendation that media literacy intervention should be part of a holistic approach to educating children on video games. A holistic approach reinforces more recent guidelines to have a family plan that incorporates video games into a daily schedule (e.g., American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2020).

What is the balance between the social identity children may associate with online games and their offline relationships? Travaglino et al. (2020) analyzed the relationships that high school and university students have through online interactions, particularly among people who label themselves as “gamers” or “frequent internet users.” Their study addressed the types of social support children receive through video games, and they attempted to determine whether video games represent a social cure (i.e., vitreous activity to be encouraged) or a social ill (i.e., a vice to be discouraged). They found that a child’s identification as a gamer strongly contributes to social support from like-minded peers in the gaming community and that this support can mitigate problems associated with video games, such as video game addiction. Children’s social isolation can be reduced through the social connections they make in online gaming. However, Travaglino et al. also drew attention to situations where gaming identity can lead to harmful activities. A child may identify as a gamer, but this should be balanced with other aspects of their identity, which is encouraged by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2020). Likewise, video games can be one component of a child’s daily activities but should not be the primary focus.

Do Video Games Allow Children to Feel Good About Themselves?

The introduction of video games into the fabric of society has dramatically changed how children are influenced by media. As such, there are additional challenges for parents and caregivers in guiding children to appropriately use them. However, the benefits of video games are apparent if parents and caregivers work to avoid harm and minimize the risks (Farrow, 2016) associated with the use of video games, particularly ones that are online. From an ethical standpoint, video gaming can be viewed as a virtuous action that allows children to feel good about themselves and lead a good life by developing friendships and finding pleasure in their activities. Aristotle viewed a person’s path towards a good life as uniquely their own (Kraut, 2018) and certainly, in the modern era, video games can be a component of this journey for a good life. The use of video games should be encouraged if parents and caregivers work to minimize the potential risks.

Suggested recommendations for parent and caregivers:

  • Children under 24 months are not encouraged to play video games (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2020).
  • Children 2 to 5 years should limit noneducation screen time (including video games) to 1 hour a day on weekdays and 3 hours per day on weekends (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2020).
  • For children over the age of 5, video games should be part of a holistic family plan (Nagata, 2020).
  • Adults are encouraged to play video games with their children (Bassiouni et al., 2019).
  • Check the parental controls, particularly for geospatial information and in-game purchases (Newman & Jerome, 2014).
  • Be aware of randomized purchases in games—for instance, loot boxes (King & Delfabbro, 2018).
  • Encourage prosocial elements in games, particularly in games that feature violence (Greitemeyer & Mügge, 2014).
  • Become familiar with ESRB ratings and decide the appropriateness for children (ESRB, 2021a).


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