I’m getting my kid a gaming system for the holidays, likely Xbox. How can I ensure that he uses it safely?

Parents often have two concerns about their kids’ video game use: access to inappropriate content and too much time spent in front of the television. You can somewhat monitor both of these issues when you’re at home. But what can you do when you're not?

First, abide by the ratings. All video games receive a suggested age limit, courtesy of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) -- see them here: www.esrb.org/ratings/ratings_guide.jsp. For the holidays, you might buy your 12-year-old a game rated “E10+” (for “everyone ages 10 and older”) and your 14-year-old a game rated "T" (for “teen”).

The Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii all offer parental control options to prevent kids from playing games not intended for their age. Enter the Settings or Options area of the video game console as the administrator and set up a passcode (which may be a word or numeric PIN). Every user must type in this password to play games with certain ratings. So using the previous example, if the 10-year-old is your youngest, you wouldn’t need a passcode for the game you buy him -- but you likely would want to set up a passcode for all “T”-rated games you give to your teen.

You can also prevent kids from interacting with other players by disabling online connectivity to the gaming console.

Finally, if you have an Xbox 360, set the “timer” option to regulate how long the game console can be used per day or week. For instance, you might allow two hours of gaming per day -- or 12 hours per week in total. A countdown appears in the upper right-hand corner of the screen at one hour, 30 minutes, 15 minutes and five minutes before the time runs out, so the player can save his or her progress before the console shuts down. 

PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii do not have this option, but you can purchase a third-party timer, which you’d plug into the console to achieve a similar effect.

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