The sudden popularity of Pokémon GO has raised concerns about possible privacy breaches, potential injuries (caused by people looking at their smartphone screens and not where they’re walking) and even being lured into robberies, according to some reports.
But the augmented reality game could pose some serious real-life risks for some of its youngest users, who could fall victim to those who may want to use the video game to lure and take advantage of children.
Police in Greenfield, Indiana arrested a convicted sex offender Wednesday after he was caught allegedly playing Pokémon GO with children outside a courthouse, NBC affiliate WTHR reported.
Zuick, a 42-year-old registered sex offender who was on probation after pleading guilty to four counts of child molestation in April, was reportedly spotted outside Hancock County Courthouse playing the game on a smartphone with a 16-year-old boy. Zuick, according to Fox 59, was under orders not to interact with children and could have his probation revoked.
Organizations that work to protect children from sexual exploitation say parents should know how the game works and set some guidelines before allowing kids and teens to hit the street to “catch ’em all.”
“When children are dealing with strangers, it requires some form of caution — not only by the children but by the parents,” said David Matas, a lawyer for Beyond Borders, an organization that works to prevent child exploitation. “Parents need to inform themselves of the risks.”
The game may not have been designed for nefarious purposes, but that’s the case with many other applications or interactive games that have wound up being used to prey on children, he explained.
“Whether it’s used for good or bad depends upon the people who are using it.”
How the game works
First things first, here’s a very basic look at what you need to know about playing Pokémon GO.
Using the app on a mobile device, the players wander around to collect virtual “Pokéballs” and capture Pokémon hidden in real-life locations. It’s quite similar to orienteering or geocaching, which uses a GPS device to locate hidden containers with hidden trinkets or tokens to exchange.
But with Pokémon GO, users can lure others to what’s known as a “PokéStop” where you may be able to capture specific characters you’re on the hunt for, and “Pokémon gyms” where your Pokémon face off in battles.
These locations have included everything from churches to police stations and even more somber and sensitive locations like the U.S. Holocaust Museum and Arlington National Cemetery. The stops can also be set up at individual homes, in parks or at playgrounds.
How do you protect your kids and still let them have fun?
The game is great for getting children — and adults — up off the couch and being active, said Signy Arnason, the director of Cybertip.ca.
One of the first things parents can do, Arnason said, is to actually play the game themselves and identify any safety concerns.
For young children, she suggested parents should institute a “buddy system,” making certain their kids are playing with a friend or a group of friends rather than on their own. “There is safety in numbers,” she said.
And that’s to ensure general safety and awareness — again, not paying attention to surroundings while staring at a screen — not just the chance someone could be aiming to take advantage of youngsters.
The fact people are using their phones to play the game, which in theory can be tracked, shouldn’t make parents any less cautious, she added.
Kids in their early teens are at an age where they’re more independent but also vulnerable and afraid of being culpable, Arnson said. They may not want to tell parents when something bad happens to them because they think it may get them in trouble. Those are the children who are easily “duped” into doing something sexual because someone older is manipulating them.
WATCH: The Baltimore Police Department released video of a car crash that was the result of the driver being distracted while playing Pokemon Go.
Arnson said raising these concerns is by no means fear mongering over a game that is largely being played for fun. “There are some risks you have to be aware of and what do you do to mitigate those concerns,” she said.