13 October 2022

Harnessing the power of games to make children safer online

Ofcom's Behavioural Insights team explains how they piloted a serious game to promote social media etiquette among children.

According to our research, more than eight in ten UK children who have been bullied experience bullying online – through social media platforms or through a device. Receiving mean and taunting comments (PDF, 2.1 MB) in response to things they share on social media can be a daily experience for some young people.

"Why do you have an Instagram account? You don't deserve one..."

Charities like Childnet have developed simple rules of thumb known as ‘social media etiquette’ to help stop social media becoming anti-social media and, perhaps more significantly, to help children avoid unwittingly revealing their personal information to predators.

What is social media etiquette?

Social media etiquette is the ‘social code’ of appropriate behaviour on social media.

The overarching theme is ‘think before you share’. What are the consequences of sharing? How might others react or feel?

Social media platforms publish advice on this. Sadly, there are serious concerns that children don't engage with this information. This might be because children are over-confident in their ability to stay safe online, or because this information doesn’t stand out or capture their attention.

Raising the game

One solution is to borrow techniques from content that children want to engage with: games. Gamification involves the application of game mechanics to non-gaming environments to motivate the user to engage, and drive behaviour change.

There is some evidence to suggest that ‘serious games’ (games that do not have entertainment, enjoyment or fun as their primary purpose) can help make people safer online. For example, the Bad News Game (an interactive choice-based serious game about misinformation) has been shown to improve players’ ability to spot and resist misinformation. But there is little empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of serious games, or their impact on behaviour.

Ofcom’s Behavioural Insight hub wanted to see if gamification could improve knowledge acquisition on social media etiquette and ultimately reduce harm. We developed a simple serious game (Tencent need not worry just yet!) to test the impact of exposing children to the game. We carried out a pilot randomised control trial (RCT) among a sample of 629 children aged from 13 to 17.

Behavioural insight in game design

Although our social media etiquette game is relatively simple, we used a number of gamification techniques to engage users.

  1. We made the game interactive to create an experience that is active (as opposed to passively reading social media etiquette advice), adding an element of challenge (players had to answer tricky questions).
  2. We included an element of personalisation (you can pick from one of three avatars) to give players a sense of control.

You can try our serious game for yourself (no data will be collected from players). You can also read our control guidance in Annex 3 of the trial protocol document (PDF, 903.6 KB).

What we found

We tested the impact of playing our social media etiquette game against the impact of reading text-based social media etiquette information. Here are the headline results:

  • Simply getting information about social media etiquette in front of children – in any format – builds knowledge. Participants in both the serious game and control guidance groups had improved levels of knowledge and understanding after the trial. The control guidelines were shorter and simpler than standard guidelines.  This simplicity may have made the content more attractive to read than similar content provided by online platforms.
  • However, gamifying leads to increased knowledge acquisition. Following the trial, knowledge of social media etiquette of participants who played the serious game was a modest but significant 4% higher than those who read the control guidance.
  • Finally, gamifying information could lead to greater positive influence on behaviour. Participants who played the serious game reported having enacted more positive social media etiquette behaviours (such as checking privacy settings or checking social media posts for anything that could be potentially regrettable in the future) in the two weeks following the trial.

We know from our follow-up qualitative research that interactive elements, like where participants had to click on part of a picture to answer a question, and personally relevant elements, such as information that related to their lived experience (like posting an image of a school on social media), were remembered best. Visually-stimulating elements (such as illustrative graphics) were also better recalled, provided context, and added entertainment value.

For more, check out the full results of the pilot (PDF, 1.2 MB).

A promising tool for online safety?

What’s exciting about these results is that our – relatively basic – serious game overcomes two challenges: not just improving knowledge compared to standard text, but making children enjoy engaging with it. With the social media landscape increasingly defined by competition for attention, that matters.

There are many areas of online safety where good advice is out there, but users too often turn their backs on it. Tools that can catch attention, like serious games, could help protect people from harms as diverse as fraud and online grooming.

Building evidence

This was a small-scale pilot trial, so we are keen to further strengthen the evidence base for serious games in online safety. We hope this article prompts further debate and research on the topic.

We would welcome the opportunity to explore the scope for conducting trials in collaboration with industry stakeholders. If you'd like to get in touch, please email behaviouralinsightshub@ofcom.org.uk

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