Multiplayer online video games and kids who struggle with social skills

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

Multiplayer online video games and kids who struggle with social skills, girl playing video game

At a glance

  • Kids who play multiplayer online video games may have their own special language and inside jokes.

  • This unique culture can be challenging for kids who have trouble with social skills.

  • Trash-talking and trolling are two big trouble spots to watch out for.

Multiplayer online video games, like Minecraft and Fortnite, are some of the most popular games. These games are fun for many kids and can come with some surprising social benefits.

Multiplayer games can be a lifeline for kids who have trouble connecting to their peers. The unique culture and shared language of gaming can help kids connect in person with other kids who play games. A gaming interest may also lead to online friends.

But multiplayer online games can be challenging for kids who have trouble with social skills. Because of the interactive nature of the games, gamers can bully, criticize, and leave kids out — just like in the real world. Kids may have the same difficulties when playing these video games as they do in real-life social situations. And their families often don’t know it’s happening.

By understanding the social challenges your child may face, you can help your child navigate this online world.

Trouble spots for kids with social skills challenges

Here are five of the main trouble spots and how to help your child.

1. Trash-talking

Opponents and even teammates often talk negatively to each other. Sometimes teasing is harmless and good-spirited. Other times it gets downright nasty, even between friends.

What you can do: If your child has trouble managing feelings, it’s important to set a strict rule to not play with kids who trash-talk. Even casual negative remarks can have a big impact on your child.

2. Trolling

Some players will harass or provoke other players for fun. Trolling is often anonymous and random, and it happens without warning. It can be deeply upsetting to kids.

What you can do: If your child is being trolled, it’s important to stop playing right away. Trolls thrive on attention. If your child tries to fight back in the game, it may invite further trolling. Most games have a system for your child to report another player who is trolling. Encourage your child to make a report.

3. Online anonymity

Being anonymous can lead kids to say and do things they might not in real life. They may be mean because no one knows who they are. That’s especially true if they’re impulsive.

What you can do: Talk about what’s appropriate and inappropriate online. Remind your child that anonymity doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for inappropriate behaviors. Games can ban or suspend players for treating others poorly or breaking the safety rules. 

Review personal safety with your child and talk about the specifics of online safety. For example, make sure your child knows not to share personal information, like a home address, phone number, or the name of their school.

4. Complex social rules

Every video game has its own set of social rules. Some games have written codes of conduct that explain how players should interact with each other. But just as in real life, social rules in games are often unwritten. Kids may struggle to understand them. They may offend other players.

What you can do: Learn about the nature of the game — whether it’s cooperative or competitive, for example. Then see if there’s a code of conduct for the game. You can look for this on the game’s website or in the support section of the game menu. If there’s no written code of conduct, try playing the game a few times yourself so you can learn some of its social rules. 

Then, help your child think through the social rules or code of conduct. Try to have your child stick to one game for a while, to learn what’s appropriate.

5. Hyper competition

Most video game developers encourage a competitive scene as a business strategy to keep a game popular. This can be tough for kids with impulsivity and self-regulation challenges. If they’re struggling in the game, they may become moody.

What you can do: If your child isn’t as good a player as other kids, emphasize that a game is just a game. Help your child recognize other strengths. You can also help your child find a new game that is fun, engaging, and a better fit for their strengths.

Video games aren’t going away. In fact, most experts agree that the gaming industry will continue to grow — and target younger and younger kids. If your child plays video games, especially multiplayer online games, make sure you’re involved so you can address any trouble spots.

More to know

Key takeaways

  • Gaming culture can be challenging for kids who have trouble with social interaction.

  • When trolling or trash-talking happen, it’s important to stop the video game play right away.

  • Kids may need help understanding a game’s social rules or code of conduct.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Jodi Gold, MD is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist in private practice.