As in many families, Roblox became a staple in Meredith Wilson Parfet’s household at the onset of the pandemic. Her boys, now ages 7 and 11, used it as a way to connect with friends virtually, playing together while on group video chats as a substitute for socializing during a time when they couldn’t physically be together.
“Our rule was that you had to wait until 5:00 to get on screens,” Wilson Parfet says, “But usually by that time of day we were all ready for a break.”
Three years later, children are still spending a substantial amount of time in front of screens, specifically in gaming environments, a habit that has raised concerns among parents and educators.
Roblox is best known as a social gaming app for elementary age children and tweens. It allows users to not only play games, it offers guidance on how to create them. Now, Roblox users are growing up with the company. According to company data, half their audience is over 13, with the fastest growing age segment ranging from 17-24. That’s why Roblox is evolving to address not only the needs of older tweens and teenagers, it’s increasing its efforts to work alongside parents, educators and even legislators to address ongoing safety concerns that plague the broader gaming industry as a whole.
VP of Civility and Partnerships Tami Bhaumik started Roblox’s Civility Initiative four years ago. Now she’s working to foster a global community of internet safety leaders to ensure good digital citizenship on Roblox.
“The initiative was born out of all of my conversations with parents, kids, teens, and the realization that parents and teachers really didn’t know how to talk or guide their kids through any sort of negative event that might happen online,” Bhaumik says. “Some parents didn’t even know there were parental controls on Roblox. How many times have you heard, ‘If you see something that makes you feel uncomfortable, go to a trusted adult or parent or teacher?’ We need to make sure our parents and teachers are also trained in digital citizenship.”
The initiative works with nonprofits, NGOs, academics, and researchers to understand the digital habits of young people and to address the safety concerns of parents and teachers. Some of those partners, according to the company’s website, include, “over 20 leading global organizations that focus on child safety and internet safety including the WePROTECT Global Alliance, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), Fair Play Alliance, Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), Digital Wellness Lab, Connect Safely, and kidSAFE among others.”
“Our partners are the ones doing work on mental health, social dynamics, and more,” Bhaumik says. “I educate them on what Roblox is and how to best use our parent controls and in turn, they educate me on what the latest trends are in human development. I take that information and use it to create a roadmap that allows our products to be safer and more civil.”
A recent partnership with the National Association of Media Literacy offers a guide focused on resilience. “We need to work with teens to help us understand their relationship with screens and their relationship with technology so we can better support their mental health,” Bhaumik says.
This progress coincides with the recent CDC report on the mental health epidemic for teen girls, which some, controversially, blame on the rise of increased screen time and social media. Others cite the fact that society just experienced a multiple-years-long global pandemic and the fact that sexual violence against teen girls has increased 27% over the past two years.
So can a social gaming platform, the home of so many elements that have been blamed for the increase in depression and isolation, possibly be a positive force in the battle against a mental health epidemic?
According to Bhaumik, gaming can actually serve as a retreat for those who feel ostracized in the physical world. “This can actually be a space that helps them work through things, get creative, and find a community where they feel safe and secure,” she says. “In certain parts of the world, for example, LGBTQ+ kids are not able to have open discussions about their identity. Roblox is a safe space for them to really express themselves through their digital identity. As we move into this next iteration of the internet, whatever that iteration is going to be, I hope to have just a small little impact on driving positivity and health.”
The company is also advocating for legislation that supports safety and transparency, such as the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act.
Roblox also has a robust parents guide. Titania Jordan, chief parenting officer of parental-control app Bark and author of Parenting in a Tech World has a list of tips on how to keep kids safe while using Roblox.
“It’s a different childhood experience than mine,” Wilson Parfet says of her children’s use of the platform. “Factors like a schedule packed with after school and weekend activities, different social dynamics, and the obvious technological platforms means we’re navigating uncharted norms. I have the most concerns about the quantity of time and their seemingly endless desire to be on gaming platforms.”
Wilson Parfet is well versed in Roblox’s parental controls. She also talks openly with her children about safety and why that safety matters.
“It’s the same as navigating the real world,” she says. “I don’t have parental controls to limit their behavior in other settings – camps, the park, in the neighborhood. My job is to parent them and set boundaries. Obviously, I want an online environment that is designed with common sense privacy parameters and their well-being in mind. But I can’t just rest on that to protect them. It has to be overlayed with my responsibilities as a parent.”
Rebecca Kantar is the founder of Imbellus, a provider of simulation-based assessments that evaluate deep thinking skills in classrooms, which she sold to Roblox in 2020. She joined as the company’s head of education, with the mission of fostering learning in a way that helps kids develop the types of foundational skills that are required for adulthood today.
She also serves as the director of the Roblox Community Fund, which pairs Roblox developers with educational organizations to build a repository of content appropriate to classrooms and curriculums across different subject areas. Some of the Community Fund projects include partnerships with FIRST Robotics and Filament Games.
About the balance of education and concerns around screen time and excessive gaming, Kantar says, “It’s a both/and. You need the right types of activities depending on the exact skills and concepts that an educator is trying to bring to students or a caregiver or students looking at for themselves as they’re at home learning, and sometimes that content is best served by reading. Other times it’s best served by a documentary, and sometimes, in order to understand how a system works or experiment with problem solving in an engineering capacity, a platform like Roblox can be additive in a way that’s efficient, cost effective and more engaging than alternatives.”
“A lot of what we’ve seen historically in the education space is entertainment with a light layer of gamification over something that’s usually not that great of a game,” Kantar says. “That turns out to not be that educational, so it’s like the worst of both worlds. That’s why you need to contextualize that experience in the broader scope of the curriculum, ensuring it fits into the pacing, the content standards, and the progression of students’ learning.”
Another advantage of incorporating a gaming platform into the classroom is the opportunity for data collection as a way to track students’ progress.
“I can tell where kids get stuck. I can tell how many times a student tries the same kind of engineering strategy before they learn and incorporate feedback and pivot. I can look at the number of creative solutions a student comes up with to a problem and see how they iterate from solution to solution,” Kantar says. “That evidence trail of breadcrumbs that offers insight for an educator or a parent into how my student is progressing is pretty valuable. It’s hard to bring in that level of measurement around an activity in the classroom.”
Educators around the world are starting to find ways to incorporate gaming into their classrooms, from STEM teachers to librarians. “The beauty of Roblox is that it can be delivered as project-based learning modules,” says Han Son, an education specialist at Hong Kong-based tech academy Koding Kingdom. “Another very unique advantage is that it allows children to observe the results of their code almost instantly.”
“Nobody wants kids on Roblox 24/7,” Kantar says. “It’s just not not in service of anyone’s best interest and everyone, I think, recognizes that on our side.”
Christina Wootton is another parent whose young children frequently use the platform. She also works at Roblox, heading up the partnerships team, which in recent months has boasted high profile partnerships that intersect across industries from Gucci, Nike and Netflix to the NFL.
“When I came to the company, I was actually about to have my first son,” she says. “Now I have three little boys who are on Roblox. I think about Tami (Bhaumik) and I think about Rebecca (Kantar) and the work this powerful team is doing. I feel really good about my boys being on the platform not just right now but as I look to the future and consider that this is how they’re going to socialize and connect with their friends.”