Are your kids into Pokemon Go? Are you?
If you answered "yes" to the first question and "no" to the second, then I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you're gonna need to quickly get up to speed. Because the app—which uses your phone's GPS to detect where you are in the game and make Pokémon "appear" around you—has become a major global phenomenon, with kids running around outside with their phones as they hunt for all the creatures.
According to the London-based National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), some of the biggest safety risks for kids include: Meeting people they don't know face-to-face, forgetting to look where they are going, and being lured to places that aren't safe.
Scary stuff! So what's a parent to do?
For starters, familiarize yourself with the game by downloading it yourself, then walking around and playing with your kid. Most kids love being considered an expert and will jump at the chance to school an adult on how it works.
Plus, once you get the basics down, you'll be better able to set boundaries. Because while the content of the game is designed to be appropriate for children as young as 9 (as listed in the terms of the app), child safety expert and creator of My Mobile Watchdog Robert Lotter told us that users that young probably don't understand the potential risks involved.
Take the app's Lure Module, for example, which Lotter says is by far the most dangerous feature of the game, because it allows players to attract both Pokémon and other users to their location, and it can be exploited by predators to attract players to remote locations.
"Children often do not anticipate this type of abuse of the app's features and may not exercise enough caution when following these lures," Lotter told Parents.com. "I would recommend kids be at least 13 years old to download the app. However, users of all ages are susceptible to predators."
And unfortunately, the lure feature is an integral part of the game. Which is why Lotter said the most powerful thing parents can do to protect their children is to straight-up warn them about the dangers of following these lures, and then drive home the best safety practices for using the app. "Talk to your kids about being aware of their surroundings and exercising caution and common sense—don't go to remote locations, don't engage with strangers, and, when possible, buddy up," he says. "Parents should also communicate about their children's whereabouts and ask that kids let them know when they change locations."
And while Lotter says watchdog apps with built-in GPS are extremely useful in tracking kids while they play, he said it's still important that parents remain in touch with their kids at all times. "If you notice your child wandering off, be sure to check in," he says.
Lures and stranger danger aren't the only hazards of playing Pokémon Go, however. Running around outside in hot pursuit while looking down at a phone can also lead to accidents. This is why parenting expert Katie Bugbee recommends parents spell out the following pointer to their critter-chasing kids: "Keep your head up so you don't walk into anything. Don't go anywhere with strangers who say they know where the "secret Pokémon" are. Don't talk to strangers at Pokestops, period. Don't bike/skateboard/play while playing. And certainly don't chase any Pokémon on busy streets, highways, or bridges."
Good tips! And while we know it's a lot to keep in mind for one game, licensed clinical psychologist Loretta Brady, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, says the benefits of using Pokémon Go far outweigh the risks.
"Young people are actually out and about, sharing and interacting in a non-virtual world (the real one!)," she said. "The real opportunity with this phenomenon is the chance to explore the world together, to learn from one another, and to engage in our broader community in ways that may not have been as comfortable before. These conversations not only bring you closer together, but model for your child that what's important isn't necessarily winning or collecting, but being part of something bigger than themselves."