Tea-Bagging! Salty language! Racism! There seems to be plenty of reasons why you shouldn't let your child go online to game until they're ready to drive.. or vote... or drink. But what about the benefits?
Gaming has a lot to teach, both overtly and covertly.
One of the best lessons you can take away from gaming is how to communicate, to take direction or to be a leader, to make friends and share experiences, but none of that is possible on a console locked away from the rest of the world. So when my son came to me shortly after his ninth birthday to ask if he could use some of his savings to buy an Xbox Live account I OKed it, but with some rules, lots of rules.
Fortunately, gaming in this golden age of technology proliferation means that as a parent I have an abundant number of ways to keep an eye on my son while he's playing online.
The PC, Playstation 3, Wii and Xbox 360 all have surprisingly robust tools for controlling your child's online time and protecting them from the world, and if necessary, the world from them.
Let's start with the Xbox 360's wonderful family setting and parental controls, something I spent a chunk of a day with recently while carefully setting my son free into the world of online gaming.
There are two ways to protect your children while they game on the Xbox 360. The first, free way, is the console's family settings. Hopping into the Xbox 360's System Settings you'll find an option for Family Settings. Once there you need to select Console Controls.
These controls let you lock away any content you don't think is appropriate. That means that whenever anyone wants to use the console to access everything available for the Xbox 360, they'll need that code. But it's just a matter of pressing four pre-assigned buttons and you're unlocked.
These controls let you select which game ratings and video ratings people can play without the code. It also allows you to block access to Xbox Live, membership creation and marketplace content altogether. Finally, there's this amazing Family Timer which can be used to control the amount of time the console can be used each day or week.
These are all things that, if you have a child, you probably should have already set up.
Once you're ready to set your child loose online on the Xbox 360 you're going to need to set up a second Live account for your child. Like the main account it can be either a free Silver account or a paid-for Gold account. This gives you tons of ways to keep an eye on what your child is doing.
When you set up your child's account, you're going to be asked to provide your own email address and password, this is so you can approve things for your child once their account is active.
Once active you can control a myriad of things on the account. You'll be able to decide if they're able to play games online, if they can add friends and if you need to approve each friend, if they can use headsets or video cameras to communicate on Live. You can also control what other people can see about your child, like their friends list, profile and online status.
Tristan wants to be able to play with a couple of neighborhood friends and his uncle online, so I set it up so that I have to approve his friends and he can talk with only his friends and video with no one.
So far I'm pretty happy with the results.
As with the Xbox 360, the Playstation 3 also has two types of parental controls. The console itself has controls that allow you to limit by rating which games, DVDs and Blu-Rays your children can play. You can also decide whether or not you want your child to be able to access the Internet on the PS3.
There's also setting for controlling your child's access to the free Playstation Network. The main, master account, can create sub accounts which can be restricted based on a bunch of settings. That includes limiting chat, content by ratings and setting a monthly allowance for the Playstation Network store.
The Wii lets you place limits on access to the Internet Channel, News Channel, online games and user-created content and the use of points in the Wii Shop Channel. You can also set the highest game rating allowed to be played on the Wii without a PIN.
Even PCs have the ability to control what your children see and do when you're not around.
With Windows 7 (Vista has this as well), you can bring up Parental Controls through a search off the start button. Once there, it will ask you to either create an account for your child or click on their current account.
The Parental Controls on the PC, once turned on, will allow you to set time limits, setting up specifically what times on what days the child can use the computer. You can also decide which games your child can play based on ratings and even block or allow specific games.
And of course, all of these systems, no matter how good, need a healthy dose of in-person monitoring. Game consoles are not baby sitters.
Like it or not, gaming is so ingrained in modern culture these days it is likely a part of every child's life. Having your son or daughter come to you one day and beg to be allowed online to play is as inevitable as the day they ask for the car keys. So it's best to be prepared and take the steps you need to make the experience fun for everyone.
Games have changed quite a bit from the 70s and 80s. It's nice to see that as the medium has matured so have the tools created to help parents be parents.
For more details check out these links:
A Parent's Guide to Video Games, Parental Controls and Online Safety
How do parental controls work when using a PlayStation 3 computer entertainment system on the PlayStation Network?
Wii Parental Controls
Xbox 360 Family Settings