Fortnite and messenger apps - warning to parents over hidden risks

As children engage in technology at an increasingly young age, primary schools and internet safety experts in Oxfordshire have warned that some youngsters are ‘hiding behind a screen’ to spread verbal abuse.

The video game Fortnite, which has 78.3 million monthly players, has prompted a warning from the NSPCC about chat functions that allow any players to contact each other, and speak via a headset without a record of the conversation.

And in July, West Witney Primary School even considered banning pupils from playing Fortnite

Chat services such as iMessage and WhatsApp have also been cited as potential platforms for bullying, and parents have now been encouraged to keep a close eye on communications.

Madley Brook Community Primary School in Witney has taken measures to put a stop to the issue, which an MP said set a ‘shining example’.

A letter sent to Year 6 pupils' parents said some children had written messages on iPhone iMessenger such as ‘no one likes you’ and ‘I hate you’.

Writing in the letter, headteacher Katherine Spencer said: “I am shocked by some of the things that have been written.

“I know for a fact that many of the comments some of the children are writing would not be said by them verbally, face to face and they are almost hiding behind a screen to make their point.

“We have had to deal with upset children who are feeling isolated by the comments and worried that they have no friends when they return to school the next day."

The letter urged parents to check their children’s phones, and warned that children are able to delete messages they send on the thread - erasing evidence of any wrongdoing.

It added: “Many parents already monitor their child’s movements on phones and online and we strongly encourage you to continue to do so.

“I would urge you to look at what your child is writing and compare this with another child’s phone if that is possible.”

Witney MP Robert Courts said the government is looking at what further measures might be necessary to protect children online.

He said: “While social media has undoubted benefits, it can play an insidious role in undermining young people's mental health – particularly when it comes to cyber-bullying.

"It is great to see Madley Brook taking such a proactive approach to tackling this important issue, and setting a shining example for others to follow.”

New Hinksey CE Primary School in Oxford also reached out to parents this month after reports of children using WhatsApp, despite being younger than the minimum age of 16.

In a newsletter, headteacher Charlotte Haynes wrote: “Whilst this is beyond school control and a matter for parents, we urge parents who do allow children to use WhatsApp and other messaging on mobile phones, to monitor and check closely and regularly the messages being sent.

“It is disappointing to hear that foul language has been used and also some bossy comments."

Madley Brook head Mrs Spencer said although children do not use phones in school, messages had had an impact in the classroom.

She said: "It's unpleasant and had the potential to become something more serious.

"We tackled the issue as soon as it came to our attention."

The school has held workshops to teach children and parents about internet safety and is in the process of training three pupils as safety ambassadors.

Mrs Spencer said with a cult game such as Fortnite, there is 'a lot of pressure' on parents to allow their child to play, regardless of the advisory 12+ age restriction.

The head added: "It's very difficult for parents. Our aim is to work with them and keep lines of communication open, and let them know what's slipping into school.

"Safety of children is our number one priority.

"It's very much about educating the children as well - if you ban them from something, it becomes like forbidden fruit. This is about helping them to keep safe and make good decisions."

Rich Hikins, who has two children who attend Madley Brook, is also a government advisor on internet and social media safety for children.

He said: "I think it's excellent the school has [sent a letter] with a view of making sure our kids are safe - it's brilliant that they are tackling it."

Witney resident Mr Hikins, who runs iRepairTech in Witney, goes into schools to educate communities about internet safety.

He said: "The age of children starting to use technology is getting younger and younger.

"At one time we only ever went to secondary schools - primary schools weren't even on the radar - but now we are almost looking at children in nurseries.

"We try to keep at the cutting edge of what children are exposed to and advise companies and product manufacturers regularly.

"I would push for parents to really understand what children are using - it's easy to safeguard when you know how it works.”

Mr Hikins also cited survival shooter game Fortnite as a platform sometimes abused by bullies, adding: "It's the headphone and microphone that a lot of parents don't understand.

"Children can really abuse each other on there and there is no recording."

He said parents should ensure they are within earshot when their child is playing, and join in to understand what the game entails.

Fortnite and other gaming platforms do provide tools in-game for reporting other players, as well as methods to limit communication to protect players.