Parental Controls Done Wrong

Or: Why Nintendo is not your friend

I have a Godson. He spends his summers with Her Ladyship and I. He is thirteen, and this year he arrived with a Nintendo Switch clutched lovingly in his hands. Hand-held gaming devices like this seem to come as factory standard equipment with every teen-aged boy (the girls all seem to want an iPhone and a boyfriend… but that’s another story).

Over the first few days he was here, he spent his every waking hour either playing Fortnite on his switch, or watching other people playing Fortnite on YouTube (oh, the ads! But that’s another story), while the switch was recharging.

I did a little research and found that a parental controls app was available for the switch, so I installed and set it up. And that’s where this cautionary tale begins.

First up, the philosophy of the app is all wrong. Instead of allowing parents to allocate screen time for good behavior, the app allows the parent to grant a daily limit that is fully available at the start of the day.

The practical application of this is that if you give your little “angel” three hours a day, then left to his own devices, he will burn through those three hours by 10AM… and be in an abominably foul mood for the rest of the day as he suffers from withdrawal symptoms. And this is precisely what happened until we discovered the “Suspend Software” option.

The “Suspend Software” setting is what actually allows the app to actually stop the Switch in its tracks. The default option for this setting is “OFF”, and this is just plain wrong, as this setting means that it does not disable the switch when the time is up. This is the equivalent of a “STOP” sign but with no cops around to enforce it; most of us will not stop… and neither will he, as he blows straight through the stop sign on his way to however many hours a day he wants. And he did. One day he racked up nearly nine hours before we realized what was happening. The default setting is effectively “Parental Advisement” or “Parental Control without control“. So make sure that you familiarize yourself with the “Suspend Software” setting and turn it ON.

For me, the real problem with this app is with its design philosophy: instead of rationing time out throughout the day, the this app is designed to deliver the whole allotment up front. This is analogous to the two models for “pocket money”: allowance, or commission.

  • An allowance is given to a child irrespective of behavior, and leads to entitlement thinking.
  • A commission is given dependent on behavior, demeanor and helpfulness.

Nintendo have gone with the “Allowance” model.,

The only way to implement the “commission” model of game time is to reset the time allowance to zero every morning. If you forget, there is nothing to prevent him from taking advantageous your forgetfulness, and that’s on you.

But there is another, more serious problem here:

You cannot set the daily allowance to zero!

The lowest amount is fifteen minutes. This means that there is no effective way to use this app to “ground” a rebellious or misbehaving child.

Another issue is that the communication between the parental control app is done through WiFi. This means that if a switch is out of the range of WiFi, parental control updates cannot be pushed to the device. It is my understanding that the switch features a version of Bluetooth that is deliberately made incompatible with open standards (to prevent non-Nintendo wireless products from being used); perhaps this should be extended to the app to prevent kids from avoiding updates.

I strongly suspect that Nintendo designed this app based on a focus group comprised of fifteen children and one adult.

Here’s a list of the changes I would make:

  1. Allow the starting allotment to be set to zero.
  2. Add a big red “You’re Grounded” button, which immediately stops a switch dead in its tracks.
  3. Add buttons for “Add Time”, with 15/30/45/60 minute buttons to allocate time.
  4. Implement a “please-please-please-please-five-minutes-more” button.

Until they do these things, or something like then, I have to assume that Nintendo is not your friend.

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