Conversations About Gaming & Digital Civility With Laura Higgins from Roblox

In November, Laura Higgins, Director of Community Safety & Digital Civility at Roblox shared the fascinating results of a recent survey with International Bullying Prevention Association Conference attendees in Chicago. The results provide a refreshingly honest peek into the world of online gaming and family communication – and should serve as a wake-up call for family-based organizations.

Roblox conducted two separate surveys – in the UK and the US. In the UK, they spoke to over 1500 parents, and in the US they surveyed more than 3500 parents and 580 teenagers, with different questions but some of the similar themes.

Two Hat Director of Community Trust & Safety Carlos Figueiredo was lucky enough to share the stage with Laura during the Keynote Gaming Panel at the same conference. During the panel and in conversations afterward, he and Laura spoke at length about the surprising survey results and how the industry needs to adopt a “Communication by Design” approach when talking to parents.

What follows is a condensed version of their conversations, where Laura shares her biggest takeaways, advice for organizations, and thoughts on the future of digital conversations.

Carlos Figueiredo: Some fascinating and surprising results came out of these surveys. What were your biggest takeaways?

Laura Higgins: In the UK survey, unsurprisingly, 89% of parents told us that they were worried about their kids playing games online. They cited concerns about addiction, strangers contacting their children, and that gaming might lead to difficulties forming real-life friends or social interactions.

What was really interesting is that nearly the same number of parents said they could see the benefits of gaming, so that’s something we’re going to really unpack over the next year. They recognize improved cognitive skills, they loved the cooperation and teamwork elements that gaming provided, the improved STEM skills. They recognize that playing games can help kids in the future as they will need digital skills as adults, which was really interesting for us to hear about.

The big thing that came out of this that we really need to focus on is that, of those people who said they were worried about gaming, half of them told us that their fears were coming from stories they saw on media and social media, instead of real-life experience. We know there’s a lot of negativity in the press, particularly around grooming and addiction/gambling, so I think we need to be mindful of the way we talk to parents so that whilst we’re educating them about possible risks (and we know that there are risks), we’re also discussing how to raise resilient digital citizens and are giving them the tools to manage risks rather than just giving them bad news. We’re trying to proactively work with media outlets by telling them, if you want to talk about the risks, that’s fine, but let’s share some advice in there as well, empower rather than instill even more fear.

Did you see different results with the US survey?

With the US research we were also able to reach 580 teens and compare the data from them and parents. Some of the most startling stuff for us was the disconnect between what parents think is really happening versus what kids think is happening. For example, 91% of parents were convinced that their kids would come and talk to them if they were being bullied. But only 26% of kids said they would tell their parents if they had witnessed bullying. In fact, they would tell anyone else but their parents; they would report it to the platform, they would challenge the bully directly, or they would go to another adult instead of their parents.

The gap was echoed throughout the whole survey. We asked if parents talked to their kids about online safety and appropriate online behavior, and 93% of parents said that they were at least occasionally or regularly discussing this topic with their kids, while 60% of teens said that their parents never or rarely talked to them about appropriate online behavior. So, whatever it is that parents are saying — kids aren’t hearing it. We need to make sure we’re reaching kids. It’s more than just sitting down and talking to them; it’s how it’s being received by kids as well.

It seems like your surveys are uncovering some uncomfortable realities – and the things that the industry needs to focus on. We talk a lot about Safety by Design, but it seems like a focus we’re missing is Communication by Design.

We were surprised with how honest parents were. Over half of UK parents, for example, are still not checking privacy and security settings that are built in. Part of my role at Roblox has been to review how accessible the advice is, how easy to understand it is, and it’s an ongoing process. We appreciate how busy parents are – they don’t have time to go looking for things.

We asked US parents who rarely or never had conversations with their kids about appropriate behavior online, why they didn’t feel like they were necessary, and we got some fascinating quotes back. Parents think they’re out of their depth, they think that their kids know more than them. In some cases that may be true, but not really – digital parenting is still parenting.

We heard quotes like, “If my kid had a problem, they would tell me.” The research tells us that’s not true.

“If my child was having problems, I would know about it.” But if you’re not talking about it, how is that going to happen?

“I brought my kid up right.” Well, it’s not their behavior we always have to look at – it’s their vulnerabilities as well.

We need to talk more broadly than just how to use the settings, so I think there are many layers to these conversations for parents as well.

What are some other things we can do as an industry to help parents?

One is, give them the skills and easy, bite-sized tips: here’s how you check your safety settings, here’s how you set privacy settings, here’s how you report something in-game, practical things they can teach their kids as well.

There’s also a broader conversation that empowers parents to learn how to have conversations. At Roblox, we do lots of work around things like, how to say no to your kids, what is an appropriate amount of screen time for your child, how to manage in-game purchases, and setting boundaries and limits, all advice that parents are grateful for. But if we just had an advice section or FAQ on the website, they would never get to hear those messages.

It’s about amplifying the message, working with the media as much as possible, having some different outlets like our Facebook page that we just launched. So parents who are sitting on the bus on the way to work scrolling through and finding those little reminders is really helpful.

Speaking of your new Facebook page, Roblox has been really innovative in reaching out to parents.

We’re also taking it offline. We have visits to Roblox, for instance, with kids. We’ll be holding an online safety session for parents while kids are off doing other activities. So I’m helping to write that. And working with parents in organizations as well, so they can still get those messages out where people are.

Schools have a key place in all of these conversations. We know that the quality of online safety conversations in schools is poor, it’s often still an assembly once a year and we’re going to scare you silly, not actually talk about practical stuff, rather than delivering these lessons through the curriculum. They should be reminding kids of appropriate online behavior at all times and giving them those digital literacy skills as well.

We’re doing webinars, we’re doing visits, and hopefully, gradually we’ll keep feeding them those messages.

It’s encouraging that you’re so committed to this, trying to change culture. Not every platform is putting in this effort.

I think we have to. I’ve been working in digital safeguarding for years, and I don’t think that we’ve hit that sweet spot yet. We haven’t affected enough change, and we need to move even faster.

Now, with all of these conversations about online harms papers and regulations, we’ve worked with partners in Australia and New Zealand where they have the Harmful Digital Communications Act but it’s still not really changing, This is just a new approach – that drip-feed, that persistence that hopefully will affect change.

We’re very lucky at Roblox – our community is really lovely. By the way, 40% of Roblox users are females which is rare in gaming. And they are very young and very supportive of each other. They are happy to learn at that age. And we can help to shape them and mold them, and they can take those attitudes and behaviors through their online digital life, as they grow up.

In the survey, we wanted the kids to tell us about the positive and negative experiences that they’ve had online. Actually, what most of them reflected wasn’t necessarily around things like bullying and harassment – they were actually saying that the things that made them feel really bad were when they did badly in a game and they were a bit tough on themselves. And they said they would walk away for 10 minutes, come back, and it was fine. And when people were positive to them in-game, they were thinking about it a few days later. So when we’re looking at how we manage bad behavior in our platform, it’s really important that we have rules, that we have appropriate sanctions in place, and that we can use the positive as an educational tool. I think we really need that balance.

I love that framing. It’s a reminder that most players are having a good time and enjoying the game the way it was meant to be enjoyed. We all have bad days but nasty behavior is not the norm.

It’s in everybody’s interest to make it a positive experience. We have a role to play in that but so do the kids themselves. They self-regulate, they call out bad behaviors, they are very supportive of each other.

We asked them why they play online games and 72% said, “Because it’s fun!”

That should be the starting point. Ultimately, it’s about play and how important that is for all of us.

What is your best advice for gaming organizations, from reinforcing positive behavior to better communicating with parents?

Great question. The first thing is to listen to your community. Their voice is really important. Without our players and their families, we would not have Roblox. Gaming companies can sometimes make decisions that are good for the business, rather than what the players want and what the community needs. And act on it. Take their feedback.

If you’re working with children, have a Duty of Care to make it as safe as possible. That’s a difficult one, because we know that small companies and startups might struggle financially. We’re working with trade bodies on the idea of Safety by Design – what are the bare minimums that must be met before we let anyone communicate on your platform? It doesn’t have to be all of the best equipment, tools, systems in place, but there are some standards that I think we should all have in place.

For example, if you have chat functions you need to make that you’ve got the right filters in place. Make sure it is age-appropriate all the way through.

Ultimately, machine learning and AI is wonderful, but it can never replace humans in certain roles or situations. You need well-trained, good moderators. Moderators have one of the most important roles in gaming platforms, so making sure they’re really well supported is important. They have a tough job. They are dealing with very upsetting things that might happen, so making sure that they aren’t just trained to deal with it, but that they have after-care as well.

If you are a family-based platform make sure you reach out to parents. I met with a delegate and she said it was the first time she’s heard a tech company talk about engaging with parents. I think if we could all start doing that a little bit more, it would be better.

You mentioned that in your 20 years in the digital civility industry, the needle has barely moved. Do you think that’s changing?

I’m really hopeful for the future. I had talked with journalists a few months ago who were slightly scoffing at my aspirations of digital civility. If you’re coming from a starting point where you just assume that games are bad and the players are bad and the community is bad – you’re wrong. People are kind. People do have empathy. They want to see other people succeed. For example, nearly all teens (96%) in our survey said they would likely help a friend they see being bullied online, and the majority of teens confirmed they get help from other players when they need it at least “sometimes,” with 41% saying they get peer help “often” or “always.” Those are all things we see all the time in gaming. And we have this opportunity to spread that out even more and build those really good positive online citizens. This is much bigger than Roblox. These kids are the future. The more that we can invest in them, the better.

We all need to enable those conversations, encourage those conversations, and equip parents with the right messages.

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Further reading:

Roblox Parents Page
Survey Says Parents and Teens Don’t Discuss Appropriate Online Behavior
Five Things Parents Should Know About Content Moderation in Video Games