There’s no doubt that videogames have brought about a paradigm shift in the way that young people interact with each other and the world around them over the last few decades.

The advent of online gaming has provided children of all backgrounds with intricately detailed virtual spaces in which to explore new creative concepts, express themselves and form connections with other people across the world, a development that should be welcomed; however, these online games have also given rise to new social structures and power dynamics that can result in victimisation.

For adults who are unfamiliar with online gaming culture, it can be difficult to understand what kind of steps can be taken to help support young gamers who are having to deal with bullying online, which is why the anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label recently published a report shedding light on the scale of the problem. By gaining a better understanding of the pressures young people are facing when gaming online, it may be possible to take action to address them.

The scale of the current problem

Ditch the Label allied with the teen-oriented social networking service Habbo to conduct the study, which surveyed 2,515 young people aged 12 to 25 about their experiences of being subjected to, witnessing and perpetrating bullying in online gaming environments.

It was found that 57 per cent of those surveyed said they had experienced bullying while playing an online game, with a similar percentage saying they had been subjected to hate speech, while 47 per cent have received threats, 40 per cent have received unwanted sexual contact, and 38 per cent have had their personal accounts or information hacked.

The study also indicated that most young people are keen to see this problem addressed, with 62 per cent saying they would enjoy playing games more if bullying and trolling were no longer an issue, and 74 per cent keen to see the issue taken more seriously.

Personal accounts of the type of bullying culture that exists in online gaming spaces suggest that many online bullies feel motivated to victimise others due to differences in skill level or simply to make themselves feel more powerful. In this regard, they are aided and abetted by the anonymity that often accompanies online interaction and a lack of proactive moderation, which can result in victims feeling powerless, depressed or inclined to simply stop playing.

Naturally, the negative implications of this trend are numerous. The ever-present threat of bullying and victimisation tarnishes what should be a means of enjoyable escapism for many young people, with the stress that these experiences cause often having a serious impact on their health, self-esteem and academic performance.

Additionally, the anonymous nature of this abuse has been found to increase rates of paranoia and social anxiety, making it all the more distressing for those subjected to it – particularly in cases where they are targeted for their gender, ethnicity, sexuality or another key aspect of their identity.

What can be done to stop this?

When asked about how these issues could be addressed, 53 per cent of respondents said they would like to see more dedicated moderators appointed to deal with problems in the community, while 49 per cent were keen to see more anti-bullying advice and support provided in-game.

Meanwhile, 48 per cent said there should be greater rewards available to those who take a stand against bullying, with 47 per cent asking for more reporting and blocking features, and 42 per cent calling for harsher punishments for abuse. Other suggestions included in-game anti-bullying campaigns and improved digital citizenship training in schools.

Liam Hackett, founder and global chief executive officer of Ditch the Label, said: “This research shows that the issue of bullying, and the very real impact it has on enjoyability and mental health is significant and impacts the majority of users.

“We will be working with our partners, in light of these findings towards a gaming community that is truly accepting and welcoming to all users.”

In the meantime, it is vital that those responsible for looking after young people – whether they be parents, teachers or professional care providers – make themselves aware of the issues that children are facing online, as this will help them to provide the help and support that those who find themselves victimised often require, as well as allowing them to prepare first-time players for the risks they need to avoid.

After all, it is well-established that games are more than just a fun pastime – they can offer children an outlet through which they can make friends, expand their imaginations and learn valuable skills such as teamwork, design, navigation and entrepreneurship. By letting children know that support is available in cases of bullying, it becomes possible for them to explore these opportunities free from any feelings of fear and apprehension.