All gamer parents want video games to be a positive part of family life, and parental controls can help achieve that with minimal arguments. Parental controls on consoles are something that you never think about until you need them. When you have a video-game-obsessed eight-year-old on your hands who sulks every time you tell them to turn the damn thing off and come to the dinner table, they suddenly become a godsend.
This piece originally appeared 8/8/18.
Whatever judgmental non-parents might say, it is often not possible to personally supervise every second of a child’s game time, especially once they get older and they may be home alone for a while after school. Unfortunately console parental controls often feel like they have been designed by people who don’t actually have to parent in real life. They can be inflexible, offering the ability to block games based on age rating but not to add exceptions if, for instance, you’re okay with your nine-year-old playing a 13-rated Spider-Man game. And if you have to enter a password every time your kid wants to play something, it can be more trouble than it’s worth.
This guide is designed to help you navigate parental controls on Xbox One, PS4 and Nintendo Switch, and evaluate their usefulness. It’s based on experience in households with mixed-age kids, and with kids who have issues with self-control around video games.
The Xbox One and Windows 10 offer decent family settings and levels of restriction. The first thing you see in the family settings is this very useful screen that shows you all the different workarounds that could be used to used to circumvent the family settings:
This is very useful, as we’ll see with the PS4’s parental settings later. It lets you close off loopholes.
Here’s what you can do for family members on an Xbox One:
- Add user accounts to your family set-up to manage them all from one place in Settings
- Set online privacy either by useful presets for children, teens and adults or in granular detail (voice chat, downloads, adding friends, seeing other people’s content, sharing on social networks, live-streaming)
- Control what Xbox apps are allowed to do with collected play data (this has no bearing on how your child uses the console, but is a good privacy feature)
- Restrict access to games by age rating, with the ability to grant exceptions for specific games
- Restrict the web browser by an automatic blocklist
The online safety settings in particular are well-pitched, allowing younger players to take advantage of online play without exposing them too much. You can control each individual online function, from adding friends to voice chat et cetera.
You can set screen time limits as well, including setting up a permissible window during which the console can be used.
You might expect this from a company that is very proud of being family-friendly, but the Nintendo Switch parental controls are exemplary. Through a companion app on your phone, you can:
- Set play-time limits per day, with different limits for each day if you want (for example: an hour on weeknights but three hours on weekends), and suspend limits whenever you want if you’re on a long car journey or on holiday
- Set a bedtime after which the console can’t be used at all, to prevent under-the-sheets 3 a.m. play
- Set alarms that tell your child when their time’s nearly up, and then either send notifications or tell the console to go straight into sleep mode when game time is over, depending on how draconian you want to be about it
- Track every minute of game-time by game. It’ll even give you a monthly report of which games have been played for how long, by whom
- Set custom or pre-set age limits for games, and whitelist specific games as exceptions (for example: if your 11-year-old wants to play T-rated Fortnite)
Having the parental controls on an app rather than the actual console is a genius idea, because it means kids can’t get in there and fiddle with the settings (or disable them entirely). It all syncs pretty much instantly with the console, so you can change or lift restrictions on the fly. You need to register for a Nintendo accounts to use the app, if you don’t have one.
The time restrictions are also brilliant, preventing arguments when it’s time to turn the console off. A bedtime setting is especially important for a console that you could theoretically sneak into bed with you.
HOWEVER! There is one massive downside to the Switch’s parental controls: they all apply to the entire Switch console, not to individual accounts on that console. If you share a Switch with your child and want to play games for adults, you must enter your PIN to lift restrictions every time you want to play a game yourself, which gets annoying—especially as parental controls are re-enabled every time the console goes into sleep mode.
If you have two kids, they also have to share the playtime; you can’t set it so that Child Account A gets an hour and Child Account B also gets an hour. If you have kids of mixed ages in your house and they’re allowed to play different games, you’re also out of luck unless they each have their own Switch.
The PS4’s parental controls have recently been improved, which is good, because they left a lot to be desired. To use parental controls on a PS4, you have to set up your child’s account as a sub-account (now called a family member account) on your own PSN. By default, that account then graduates to a full PSN account when the child hits 18.
Here’s what you can do with a family member account and system-level restrictions:
- Restrict games based on age rating, but with no ability to set exceptions or whitelist
- Turn access to the internet browser on or off
- Turn the ability to play PlayStation VR games on or off
- Turn off the ability to voice chat or send messages
- Prevent kids from seeing all user-generated content
- Set a monthly PSN spending limit
- Set play time restrictions (say, 2 hours per day), adjustable by day of the week, with the console either sending a notification or logging the child out when time is up
- Set times when the child is allowed to play, say between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.
These settings are then all protected with a PIN code.
The problems with this setup are manifold. If you’re okay with your younger child playing T-rated Spider-Man but not T-rated Fortnite, you’re screwed. It leaves no nuance for making your own decisions about which games are and aren’t allowed. Also, limiting all user-generated content or none of it is unhelpful. UGC is a huge element of lots of games that kids play now; you don’t want them to miss out on all of it, but given the ineffective moderation in most online games, you also don’t want to expose them to really inappropriate stuff.
The lack of granularity in the online communication settings is also unhelpful: you can either allow or disallow all voice chat or messaging, including with friends, but if you want your kid to be able to chat with their friends but not other people, you have to change different settings in your child’s PSN account. They can easily change them back, if they’re old enough. If you allow communication so they can chat with friends, you can end up with your kid joining random Destiny community boards and messaging adult strangers to raid with, which is far from ideal.
On the plus side, the PS4 system allows you to set restrictions per account rather than per console, which is very useful if you have multiple children and you use the PS4 yourself. But there’s nothing to stop a tween or young teen from just logging into your account to play the games they’re not supposed to, if you’re not in the house. To prevent this, I suggest going into the PS4’s system-level settings and PIN-locking parental accounts so that your kid can’t access your profile, and also disabling “guest” accounts and the ability to create new accounts on the login screen.
So, which is best? In my experience, the most useful elements of parental control settings are play timers that prevent kids from trying to sneak onto the console when they shouldn’t be, granular online safety settings that let your child communicate and share with friends but not strangers, and a whitelisting feature that lets you age-restrict games but allow specific exceptions.
The Nintendo Switch has the best, most flexible and easy to use parental controls, perhaps predictably, and online play is safely locked down. The main problem is that they make sharing a console pretty difficult.
The PS4’s settings are fiddly and inflexible when it comes to online communication and age ratings, but good for play timers.
The Xbox is perfect for granular online safety settings and has a whitelist feature, but lacks some of the ingenuity of Nintendo’s offering.
No parental control feature is a substitute for actually engaging with what children are playing and talking about it, though if you’re reading Kotaku, I don’t need to tell you that. But they can certainly help parents enforce their house rules and keep games an enjoyable presence in family life, rather than a source of arguments and stress.
Correction 5:13pm - We originally stated that the Xbox One does not allow parents to set screen time limits. It does, as explained here. We apologize for the error and have updated the post accordingly.