There are smart ways to restrict the time our kids spend playing videogames at home during lockdown
‘Just five more minutes, mum, pleeeease?” “Turn that bloody thing OFF!” “Why don’t you go outside and play instead of staring at that screen?”
If these sound like the arguments that pass for family life in your house, take heart in the knowledge that you’re not alone. In this year of the plague, parents could be forgiven for using videogames as crutches and babysitters while they try to get some work done.
Let’s not forget too that youngsters find an important social outlet through gaming, connecting and chatting with their friends online through Fortnite or Roblox as a substitute for meeting at each other’s houses (probably, ahem, to play Fortnite or Roblox).
But, like all good things, it should be enjoyed in moderation instead of 12-hour marathons that leave the little darling sleep-deprived and more than a little bit narky. Policing your child’s gaming needn’t be a battleground, however, thanks to extensive parental controls built into every modern console.
As any parenting guru will tell you, though, it’s important to discuss such plans with your offspring first, explaining why and establishing the ground rules to gain their buy-in. You’ll probably also need their co-operation to gather their login and password before you can set up the parent-child digital relationship. It's also important to ensure their age is set correctly in their account.
Let me warn you too that these tools take a little bit of time to set up and require a modicum of technical knowledge, though not much more than, for instance, being able to create an appointment reminder on your mobile phone. It should also be noted that (children, please look away now) the most devious young players will suss out a way past some of these measures. A quick browse of internet forums devoted to cracking such security suggests simply watching a parent input their password/PIN is often the easiest. You have been warned.
Older consoles — such as the Wii, PS2/PS3 and Xbox 360 — are beyond the scope of this guide, though limits can be applied on the machines themselves. We’re going to focus on consoles such as the PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, the PC and recent iPhone/Android phones or tablets — all of which can be monitored and controlled remotely via your phone.
The first step in pretty much every case involves creating a free adult’s account on the relevant service for yourself. Visit PlayStation.com or Xbox.com — or whichever applies — and sign up for a login. Note that in the case of Apple, Google’s Android or Microsoft/Xbox, you may already have a valid account and you can simply use that. But for the sake of your sanity, ensure you set a password that is difficult to guess.
Next, download the appropriate app in the Apple or Google Store — choose from Microsoft Family Safety (which is for Xbox and PC), Google Family Link (Android phones/tablets), PlayStation App or Nintendo Switch Parental Controls — and log in.
Now that you have an adult — or “master” — account, you can easily link it to your existing child’s login by going into the settings of the app and selecting the option to add members to your “family”.
However, with a PlayStation 4 or 5, there’s one more wrinkle. It’s highly likely that a child with those consoles already has an account, even from an older machine. This will almost certainly be configured as a “master” if you haven’t set up parental controls previously, and Sony doesn’t easily let you convert a master account to a child’s account.
Your child will lose access to all the trophies associated with an older account by switching to a new one. You can try phoning the PlayStation helpline (01 691 7379) and pleading your case, but good luck with that. It worked for me years ago but may not be an option now. Taking over the child’s account as your own (so that they retain access to previously purchased games) and adding a fresh juvenile account is painful but probably necessary.
In the case of iPads and iPhones, you manage everything through an option called Screen Time that sits in the Settings app of your own iPhone. You can’t control a child’s iPhone limits from an adult’s Android but the reverse is possible using Google Family Link. However, you can still set up parental controls on the child’s iPhone itself.
With all other consoles, once the relevant app is set up and you have linked your offspring’s account to your own, managing play time, appropriate content and spending limits becomes, er, child’s play.
You could allocate two hours a day with extra time on the weekend, for instance. Or you could restrict time on a specific game. You should definitely familiarise yourself with the options on spending.
The parent can also prevent the child from downloading games that are unsuitable for their age, using categories such as 12+, 15+ etc. Bear in mind the rating refers to the thematic content, not the difficulty level.
Obviously, you can judge the maturity of your adolescent but do realise that games have grown as a medium where most players are aged over 18. The ratings should be respected. Modern titles tackle heavyweight issues from drugs to sex to violence and more than half the releases in 2020 were aimed at the 12+ group or higher, according to European ratings agency PEGI.
PEGI (www.pegi.info) provides useful guides to the content of almost every game, as well as more details about parental controls for all consoles.