Cinema-style rating for computer games

Government urged to clear up confusion over which titles are family friendly, and crack down on the sale of adult material to children

Brian Brady,Jane Merrick
Sunday 23 March 2008 01:00 GMT

Every computer game is set to be given a "parent-friendly" classification in an attempt to prevent children gaining access to some of the most violent and sexually explicit products on the market.

The TV psychologist and parenting expert Tanya Byron is to urge the Prime Minister to clear up confusion surrounding the video games played by millions of young people by imposing a cinema-style rating across the industry.

At present, only the most violent games – just one in 10 of the 2,000 new games produced every year – have to carry age ratings issued by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). Dr Byron believes that many children get access to the most dangerous games by hoodwinking their parents into believing that existing ratings refer to skill level – and not to the content of the images.

Her report after a six-month investigation into the potentially harmful effects of video games and the internet is also expected to call for tougher sanctions on shopkeepers who sell "adults-only" games to children. The Independent on Sunday has established that on average, over the past 10 years, only 14 retailers have been prosecuted for illegally selling video games to minors.

Dr Byron, who plays computer games with her own two children, insists that the internet is "a powerful and positive tool" in the home. But she has raised profound concerns over the lack of control that parents have over what their children are able to access online.

The explosion in social networking sites, which allow young people to chat online and exchange personal details and photographs, has highlighted the need for scrutiny. MySpace, the biggest social network, has more than 110 million users worldwide; Facebook, the second largest, has more than 60 million.

The Byron report, to be unveiled on Thursday, will call for action to close the "digital divide" that is exposing children to the dangers of explicit content, internet grooming by paedophiles and "cyber-bullying", without the protection of their parents. Dr Byron said: "Kids know more about the technologies than adults. They are using them more and they understand how to use them."

She will recommend that both parents and children should receive lessons in internet safety, including the use of security software, and advice on limiting the amount of personal information released. Her first simple suggestion will be that computers are positioned in shared areas of homes, such as living rooms, so that parents can keep an eye on what their children are viewing.

Dr Byron launched her investigation at the request of the Prime Minister last September, after he expressed concern over the impact of violence seen by young people. She took evidence from internet industry experts, retailers, parents and children.

The classification of video games quickly emerged as a central concern among parents. The majority of new games are given a rating under a voluntary system maintained by Pan-European Game Information (PEGI). Manufacturers have to apply for a statutory BBFC rating only if their product depicts sex, gross violence, criminal activity or drug use.

Dr Byron told representatives of the gaming industry that restructuring the classification system was a fundamental "housekeeping issue".

She said: "We are looking at this system and how people understand it. It seems there is some confusion, particularly around PEGI ratings, in terms of is this content based or skill based, and children can very quickly convince their parents – 'Oh, I'm very good at this. I know it says 15 and I'm 10 but let me have it.'"

The review is expected to recommend that all computer games are given the BBFC movie-style classification, with the possibility that the task of rating and regulating the products should be handed to a new organisation with tougher powers to prosecute offenders.

Shopkeepers currently face a maximum fine of £5,000 for illegally selling games, DVDs or videos to minors, but the average fine levied in 2006 was £1,244. In 2005 and 2006 – the latest years for which figures are available – only eight prosecutions were brought.

The Prime Minister asked Dr Byron to carry out a review to assess the effectiveness and adequacy of the existing measures that help to prevent children being exposed to "harmful or inappropriate material in video games and on the internet".

A bad week for the web

The psychologist with a message for parents

Tanya Byron was commissioned by Gordon Brown to assess the threat posed by modern technology, but insists the internet and video games are important learning aids. However, the TV psychologist fears young people are being left to their own devices because their parents feel the internet age has passed them by. "The generation gap is huge," said Dr Byron, who has also warned of the dangers of a "moral panic" around violent games and the internet. During her six-month inquiry, she voiced concerns that children may be growing up in a risk-averse culture that "does not necessarily empower them".

The 18th birthday party to remember

Sarah Ruscoe made the mistake of inviting "everyone" to her 18th birthday celebration – and advertising the bash on the social networking site Bebo. More than 2,000 people turned up at her home, a 21-bedroom Georgian mansion in Devon, and the police had to be called to remove the gatecrashers. As the family were clearing up the smashed windows and furniture, ripped-up carpets and damaged doors the next day, a series of tributes to the event appeared on the internet. "So be proud that you attended this amazing partayyy," one Bebo contributor wrote, before going on to mock the emergency services involved.

The 'Facebook murder' investigation

Detectives hunting the killer of a Norwegian socialite believe the last man to see her alive has fled to the Middle East. Farouk Abdulhak, 21, had been listed as a friend of Martine Vik Magnussen, 23, on Facebook. When Ms Magnussen failed to return home after a night out, her friends launched an appeal for information on the site. Her body was found under rubble in the basement of an apartment block last Sunday. Mr Abdulhak, whose Facebook site was defaced shortly before he left the UK, is thought to have travelled to Yemen the day before the discovery. The Norwegian media called the case the Facebook murder.

The warning from the father of the web

The creator of the world wide web warned that today's social networkers could be haunted by their postings for generations to come. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the web in 1989, urged users to remember that information online can be found by people who were never intended to access it. He told the current generation of social networkers to imagine their grandchildren reading the entries: "You put something into a public space to share it with a few friends and in fact you've forgotten that it's actually a public space or that the list of friends is huge or that some of them can't be trusted not to put it somewhere else."

The sites that give lessons in suicide

A coroner called for tougher regulation of the internet to stop websites giving detailed instructions on how to commit suicide, as inquests were held into five of the 17 young people believed to have killed themselves in Bridgend. Philip Walters, who has been investigating a string of suspected suicides around the Welsh town since January 2007, singled out video-sharing sites such as YouTube for criticism. In one clip, an American man explains how to tie a hangman's noose and mentions his growing fanbase in the UK. Mr Walters said there was no doubt that such sites encourage people to take their own lives.

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