Responsible parents...doing their part to keep their kids safe online. They've installed monitoring and filtering software on their computer, they utilize parental controls, the keep the computers in common areas in the house. They've done their homework and put their time in. And yet, their 14 year old son has a massive collection of pornography and access to extremely objectionable websites at will. How is this possible? Surely this boy is accessing this content outside the home since the parents have locked everything down. Nope. This boy is building his collection via a source parents usually overlook - his video game console.
Wait a minute...I'm a responsible parent....I insist that no hard core games come into my house...I rely on the video game rating system (ESRB). Good for you...keep it up. Only I'm not talking about video games. I'm talking about Internet access.
Think about the typical video game console scenario. You don't want all of that junk (15 different types of controllers, video game boxes, etc.) messing up the TV in your family room, so what do you do? You put the video game console on the TV in the basement or their bedroom. Video game consoles today are nothing more than specialized personal computers. There really isn't much difference between your family PC and that XBox connected to your television. They both have monitors, they both have hard drives and RAM, and YES, they both have Internet access. Sony PlayStation, Nintendo Wii, and Microsoft XBox all have browsers that allow your children to connect to the Internet. And since they all have hard drives and other storage media, they have a place to save anything your kids find online. To make it worse, even though these machines are essentially home computers, they do not run typical operating systems and therefore, parents can't install typical filtering software on them. These units provide the user fairly unlimited access to the internet. That means chat rooms, pornography, hate propaganda websites, you name it.
So what can you do as parents? Well, you could just unhook the device from the Internet. However, most kids today are playing games that are multiplayer online games that require internet connection to play. If you disconnect the Internet, you might as well not have spent the $300 for the unit in the first place. You could also disallow video game consoles altogether from your home. But let's be reasonable. We can't let our fear of bad stuff online cloud our overall vision. There is nothing wrong with a kid having a video game console - it's a great source of entertainment that doesn't involve drugs or alcohol (there are worse things). So what can you do? Be smart. If the computer isn't allowed in a private area, then a video game console shouldn't be either. Get smart. Learn how to get into the video game console and look around at saved files and browsing history. The good thing about the lack of traditional operating system architecture is that it's nearly impossible to hide files from view - if they are on the machine, you'll probably come across them. Look for the signs - if your kid turns the unit off every time you walk in the room, something is up. You should also watch for kids using removable media with game consoles (memory cards and USB drives) and ask your kids to open that media occasionally in your presence if they are using it.
Like everything else that is connected online, you have to put the time in to monitor it. Create some rules and acceptable use policies for your home and ENFORCE them (a rule isn't a rule unless you enforce it right?). If you catch them with bad stuff on the video game console, it's gone, and they can't ever have another while they live under your roof. Zero tolerance. Yes, they can get it somewhere else...but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do the right thing and send the right message.
Fortunately right now, handheld video games like Gameboy, PSP, Nintendo DS, etc. have limited Internet access (if it does have access it's only to connect you to other players, there is no browsing available)...for now. But it's coming there too. The I-Pod Touch is rapidly becoming a popular handheld gaming device and guess what, it has a browser and Internet access. It's just a matter of time and they will all be connected.
Don't be paranoid...don't go on a witch hunt, but don't be an ignoramus either. You are smart enough to have a career, manage a household and all of your finances, you can probably figure out a video game console. Put the time in and get online with your kids. When they were little, you took them to the park and watched them play to keep them safe. Think of the Internet as a virtual park. They need you to watch them play there as well.