Weak parental controls on Sony PS4 put your kid at risk

It's not easy to block access to violent and obscene streaming content

Published: January 28, 2014 10:00 AM

Do you know everything your kids are seeing on the Sony PlayStation 4? You may be surprised to learn that live-streamed broadcasts containing adults-only content are readily available for viewing—even if you ramp up the console's parental controls. You can even turn off Internet access, but live-streamed broadcasts remain viewable on the console.

In November, reports raised concerns about Playroom, an augmented-reality game that comes pre-loaded on the PS4. Playroom uses the PS4 Eye camera accessory to superimpose virtual objects on video that you capture of your own living room. Users had been using Playroom to capture some pretty racy content (including nudity and foul language), then distributing it via Sony's PS4 Live app, which is meant to let gamers broadcast their own gameplay using services such as Twitch and Ustream. After some initial bad publicity, Twitch stopped listing these broadcasts in its directory, and the issue died down.

At that time, Sony was reported to be "working on the problem." But the PS4 also uses Ustream, which did not unlist Playroom streams—so more than two months later, they're still appearing. And Playroom is just one of the "not safe for children" streams that populates PS4 Live.

One of our staff members recently checked out PS4 Live at home and found streams of everything from sexually suggestive on camera behavior to violent M-rated gameplay streams, with a feed of comments that were also decidedly not kid-friendly.

So we dug into the privacy settings on the PlayStation 4 in our labs to see whether there was any way to block Live streams, short of disabling the Wi-Fi connection and physically isolating the machine from the Internet.

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We started with the parental controls in the PS4's Settings menu and cranked up the apps control to the maximum setting. This blocked access to M-rated games on the console such as Assassin's Creed IV, but we could still see every player-generated stream within the Live section, allowing us to view video content that included ultra-violent gaming as well as Playroom video.

We then went back to the parental-control settings and raised the controls for everything to the maximum level, which also blocked access to the PS4's Web browser. But we were still able to view all of the Live streams.

The only way we were able to block access to those streams was by creating what Sony calls a Sub Account. When you initially set up the PS4 with a Master (admin) account, there is no prompt to create Sub Accounts for children. If you do create a brand-new account specifically for a kid, though, and enter his birthday, the PS4 prompts you to create a Sub Account (see our video, below, for step-by-step directions on how to do so).

We reached out to Sony, and a representative confirmed that a Sub Account can block all user-generated content. "The PlayStation 4 system is designed to help gamers share their game play through popular social channels," the representative said. "It is unfortunate that some individuals may abuse this feature and share inappropriate content. Our social media partners are experienced in monitoring and disabling users who violate their terms of service, and we are working in full cooperation with them to minimize these instances."

Our take: Because there are parental-control settings accessible within the Master account, parents may not initially understand the need to set up Sub Accounts for their children—and the process is neither obvious nor intuitive. We suggest that parents who are concerned about their children's access to PS4 Live check out Sony's PS4 help page online to find intructions on setting up a Sub Account, as that is the only way to block access to potentially disturbing content.

—Carol Mangis

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