You bought your kid a video game console for Christmas and became the coolest parent in the world. Now that school’s started, though, your threats to take the [expletive deleted] thing back to the store because your son or daughter can’t seem to find time for homework are threatening to put a dent in that coolness. What’s more, you’ve realized that while you can control what games you buy for your child, it’s hard to account for games his friends might have that you deem inappropriate. What’s a parent to do?

Lucky for you, Nintendo’s Wii, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 all feature some level of parental controls to help manage what games children and teens can play and which movies they can watch. Depending on which console you own, you may be able to keep track of how long your child plays or even limit how many hours per day or week your child is allowed to game. All of this, of course, will require you to familiarize yourself with some basic functionality of your child’s console. Don’t be intimidated by having to pick up a game controller. It’s not as hard as it looks.

For starters, all three consoles allow for global settings governing game and movie ratings. If you don’t want your child to watch R-rated movies or play M-rated games considered appropriate for ages 17 and up, including “Grand Theft Auto IV” and “Fallout 3,” there are settings you can enable to block your child from playing such games.

Xbox 360’s deep controls

Of the three consoles, the Xbox 360 has the most extensive set of family controls, so we’ll start there. To access family settings on the 360, log into one of the console’s profiles. (It’s probably best if you create a new one for yourself, a fairly straightforward process.) Once you do that, go to the “My Xbox” menu. Then, navigate all the way over to the right, to “System Settings” and push A. Then, select “Family Settings” from the menu that pops up.

To restrict games, movies, TV shows and videos, as well as block access to Xbox Live, select “Console Controls.” Now that you’re in there, you can block your child from playing games at or above the rating of your choosing. (There are also short explanations of what the ratings mean.) You can take similar steps for movies and TV shows. The folks at Microsoft even thought to include on option where you can block access to unrated content.

Within the same menu, you’ll see an option called “Family Timer.” This is great for both children and adults hoping to better
budget their free time. You can designate a total amount of time you want the console
to be played in a given interval, such as 1 hour a day or five hours a
week. When your child is playing, the console will even let him know
when he has 5 minutes left, giving him a chance to save his game before
the power is cut. Once time expires, you’ll get an option to turn off the console, suspend the timer or add more time. The last two choices require you to input a password you choose when you first enable the family settings.

If you intend to let your child game online, you should set up a child Xbox Live profile to limit their ability to communicate with anonymous people. While instances of child
abduction and sexual predation in online games are rare, the language many online gamers use is charitably
described as uncivilized, with inappropriate language ranging from
basic profanity to hate speech. What’s more, many of the worst
offenders appear to be children or teens themselves. Luckily, once you create a child profile, you can disable voice chat, keeping your child’s ears free
of profanity and sparing us adults playing online from hearing the new racist taunts your kid picked up at school. You can also restrict access to text- and picture-based communication, as well as the child’s ability to send and receive friend requests.

Wii restrictions simpler, but that’s OK

Over on the Wii, you’ll find the parental controls aren’t as hearty, but they don’t need to be. Nintendo’s built-in Friend Code system, which requires two players to each input the other’s 16-digit code before they can be considered “friends” adds a baseline level of safety not found on the other consoles. Online gaming is largely anonymous. The Wii also does not play DVDs or have a downloadable video store, meaning it really only needs parental controls governing which games are playable on the system.

You’ll find parental controls under the Wii Options menu, in the lower left corner of the screen after you turn on the Wii. Once you point and click on the icon, you’ll want to navigate to “Wii Settings.” From there, navigate to the second screen and choose “Parental Controls.” You’ll be asked to choose a four-digit PIN and a security question before continuing. After that, you’ll see the same basic “Highest Game Rating Allowed” choices you saw on the 360, with explanation of what each rating means. You’ll also be able to set restrictions on the use of Wii Points (used to download games from the Internet), user-to-user communication, access to user-generated content and the ability to surf the Internet and News channels. One flaw I found in Nintendo’s parental controls was that many of the security questions (used if you forget your password) are questions your child might know the answer to, such as “What is your mother’s maiden name?” and “What is your place of birth?” Also, each response must be at least six letters. So if your mother’s maiden name is Smith or your favorite movie is “Rocky,” you’re out of luck.

The Wii doesn’t have the 360’s timer feature, but it does keep track of how much time is spent playing it. You’ll just have to add up the raw numbers yourself. To access that information, select the little envelope in the lower right-hand corner of the Wii’s main menu. If the Wii has been played that day, there will be a little envelope that says “Today.” You can use the arrows on the right and left side of the screen to navigate back and forth between days.

PS3 requires more management

The PS3 differs slightly from the 360 and Wii. While it also allows you to set guidelines for the games and entertainment your children can play and see, it uses its own ratings system. While the Wii and 360 use the Electronic Software Rating Board and Motion Picture Association of America ratings you’ll find on all commercial game and movie packaging, the PS3 uses an 11-point scale for games and an eight-point scale for movies. Generally the tamer the title, the lower its point rating, although you may want to do some digging and examine specific movie and games’ ratings before deciding what value to set in your console’s menu. Theoretically, this makes the PS3’s ratings system a little more nuanced, but at the cost of it being more confusing to users unfamiliar with Sony’s guidelines.

To access the PS3’s parental controls, navigate to “Settings” in the console’s Xcross Media Bar. Then, navigate down to “Security Settings” and hit X. You’ll be able to set guidelines for game and movie content here and also disable the Internet Browser. Upon initial configuration, the PS3 will prompt you for a PIN. The default is 0000. Enter that, then select a new PIN your child won’t be able to guess.

While the PS3 doesn’t include the same online protection features found on the 360, it’s worth pointing out that the PS3 doesn’t come bundled with its own headset for online communication the way the 360 does. If you really care about keeping your kid away from online vulgarity, don’t buy him a headset.

You’ll probably still want to keep younger children away from online play, entirely. With teens, you might just log on from time to time to peruse their friends list and make sure nothing inappropriate is going on. In general, treat online video game console use the same way you’d treat Internet use. If you’d require your son or daughter to use the family computer within sight of you, do the same with the game console if you’re unable to set up strong parental controls.

For more information on the current generation consoles’ parental controls, visit these linked Web sites for the Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.