The PlayStation Vita is the latest mobile gaming console from Sony, and includes a lot of features — Wi-Fi, front- and rear-facing cameras, social-networking apps and optional 3G cellular connectivity — that promise to be exciting to an adult gamer who can use the Vita responsibly. But is the PS Vita appropriate for a child?
After all, we're talking about a toy, albeit an expensive one, that it will inevitably end up in the hands of kids. In that situation, the PS Vita's sophisticated features can turn an interesting bit of fun into the potential for personal security problems.
It's true that lots of devices give kids access to the Internet. And you could argue that all that children need to avoid problems are diligent and caring parents. Given the right parental controls, and a frank discussion about online safety and privacy concerns, what kind of problem could there be with the PS Vita?
There's a party right nearby
Much of the fuss is about a proprietary social-networking app called Near that uses GPS technology or Wi-Fi hotspots to track users and inform them of each other's locations. When Near is combined with another proprietary app called Party, which lets users talk directly to each other and join multiplayer games, it could give adult strangers an unprecedented amount of direct access to children.
That's because Party connects users not only to known friends, but to strangers as well. As Sony describes it, “When friends of friends join your room, Party notifies you and allows you to easily add them as a new friend.”
When you give strangers the ability to talk to your child using Party, and then to locate your child with Near, that could get a bit dangerous.
“The device, for younger children, presents a significant risk,” said Don DeBolt, director of threat research for Islandia, N.Y.-based security company Total Defense. “They are going to be connected to a powerful new device with multitasking and party chat always running in the background, always allowing people to contact you.”
How to play nicely
So what can you do if you don’t want your kids (or yourself) to be tracked by people who have nothing in common with you other than a PS Vita? DeBolt has a suggestion that will mitigate your risk, provided you’re willing to do a bit of work.
“First and foremost, sit down and play with the device with the child and get familiar with the device, even if your child has to walk you through it,” he said. “Read the manual. It's pretty straightforward. Have a discussion with your kids about the risk of being connected.”
Parents will also have to decide whether kids are old enough to use the third-party social-networking apps available for the PS Vita, which include Skype, Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter.
If you know how to use this device, you'll be able to decide which features are appropriate for your kids, and you'll be able to disable those that aren't. Just be aware that the location-data and chat settings are in two different menus, as detailed in the operator's manual.
The more you know about Mii
It's worth comparing the default settings on the PS Vita with those on the Nintendo 3DS, which is aimed at younger users and uses Wi-Fi to connect consoles to the Internet and to each other.
The 3DS's console-to-console feature, called StreetPass, lets users exchange Miis, or virtual avatars, for later gameplay. But StreetPass gives out only the first name of the user, the Mii’s likeness, the user's birthday without the year of birth, the user's hobbies and state of residence and which games he or she likes to play. There's no tracking data.
So is the PS Vita really suitable for children? Yes — but only if parents are willing to put in the extra work required to make it so.
The PlayStation Vita went on sale in North American on Feb. 22. Sony Computer Entertainment America did not respond to requests for comment for this story.