Tips and advice to empower kids to stay secure when logging on.

A story making the rounds online and in social media has parents worried about the dangers connected to the online game Fortnite. But before you panic and ban the Xbox, let’s examine the realities around what is really happening with online gaming and app use.

If you’re not familiar with Fortnite, it is a wildly popular multiplayer game in which players battle for survival. Players can team with others, or play as an individual – and both children and adults love it. The company that produces Fortnite, Epic Games, reports 125 million total users, and saw 78.3 million active Fortnite players in its busiest month, August 2018. My own son clocked hours of playing this past summer, and still plays on occasion. I know well the grip this game has on kids.

The predators story gained attention after the high-profile arrest of 24 men who police say were using messaging services through games and apps to try and lure children. The case involved law enforcement officials posing as kids, and the men arrested thought they were communicating with 14- and 15-year-old boys and girls. Instead, on the other end of the messages were detectives with the New Jersey State Police's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

The news was reported on NJ.com and the headline proclaimed “Predators are using Fortnite to lure kids. Cops say parents need to worry.” Since it was first published in September, it has been heavily shared and discussed by multiple media outlets. While it is no longer fresh news, I saw it shared by a mom friend once again this week on Facebook.

Because so many parents are witnessing the Fortnite phenomenon in their own homes, the scary headline does a good job stoking our deepest fears. That is: the very valid concern that something bad could happen to our children. But the panic it induces is misplaced. My problem with it is it serves only to scare, and fails to address the real and complex issues around online safety.

The concern about dangerous people reaching out to our children online is not a Fortnight-specific problem. It is an online access problem that exists in all games and applications where kids can send and receive messages. In fact, the NJ.com headline is misleading because the predators involved in this specific New Jersey arrest had not even used Fortnite to lure potential victims. Instead, the sites Kik, Skout, Grindr, Whisper were used by the alleged criminals.

Child predators can target kids on any game or app where private messaging is a feature. Other apps that law enforcement say have been used by predators include the gaming apps Minecraft and Discord, as well as social media apps Omegle, Tinder, Chat Avenue, Chat Roulette, Wishbone, Live.ly, Musical.ly (now called TikTok), Paltalk, Yubo, Hot or Not, Down, and Tumblr. Use of any of these apps poses the same risk as Fortnite. The NJ.com story simply takes the most popular game of the day and inserts it into the headline for clicks.

Keeping kids secure online is part of a much larger effort in your family than simply blocking sites and content and telling kids they can’t play one specific game. Children are going to ask to play these games and use these apps. Often if you ban them in your own home, they will play them at a friend’s house. That’s why we need to empower kids to engage safely while online. We need to educate them and be realistic about the risks that exist every time they log on – whether it is to Fortnite, Minecraft, TikTok or any other site with private messaging. Understanding what is out there - and preparing for how to react - are the first steps to staying safe.

Some tips from Common Sense Media to share with your children include:

Recognize "red flags," including someone asking you personal questions such as your name and address. Never share your name, your school's name, your age, your phone number, or your email or home address with strangers. Never send pictures to strangers. Keep passwords private (except from parents). Never open a message from a stranger; it may contain a virus that can harm a computer. Immediately tell an adult if something mean or creepy happens.

Author, life coach, parenting educator, and social media expert Laurie Wolk says keeping kids protected online has a lot to do with getting to know their behavior offline.

“Pay attention to your kids,” advises Wolk. “How are they acting? Who are they spending time with? Ask those questions. It’s very unlikely that a child upstairs in their bedroom getting catphished by a pedophile isn’t showing other warning signs before that happens.”

Talk to your kids realistically and regularly about online security and safety. Ask them what they are seeing and hearing. Let them know they can come to you with concerns and questions and reassure them that it’s not their fault if they witness something scary or inappropriate. Set rules and boundaries for behavior, and go from there. Rather than banning a game, your best defense against online predators is a conversation.

Joan Goodchild is a veteran writer and editor and mom of two living in Central Massachusetts. Have a topic you would like to see discussed? Reach her at cybersavvymom@yahoo.com. Get more advice for staying smart, secure and civil online at cybersavvymom.com.