Previous versions of Mac OS X allowed basic control—via the Parental Controls screen of Accounts preferences—over the functionality available to non-administrative users. For example, you could control what could be done in the Finder and to system settings, restrict access to particular applications, and manually choose the people with whom users could exchange e-mail and chat messages and the Web sites users could visit. You could also prevent Dictionary from displaying profanity.
In Leopard, Parental Controls gets its own Systems Preferences pane, which reflects not only the greater importance Apple has put on this feature in the latest version of Mac OS X, but also the extent of its capabilities—Parental Controls has outgrown its screen in Accounts preferences and needs a place of its own.
The Parental Controls settings for a particular account are divided into five screens; these settings can be applied to any non-administrator account, including the Guest Account. The System screen contains essentially the same options as the Finder & System configuration screen in Tiger—Simple Finder, a list of allowed applications, and restrictions on changing printer and Dock settings, burning discs, and changing the account password.
A new Content screen incorporates Tiger’s Dictionary and Safari restrictions, but the latter have been improved in two ways. First, a new option is available for limiting access to adult Web sites automatically; Leopard includes a content filter that intercepts Web pages on the fly and determines if each is “suitable for kids.”
As with Tiger, you can also create your own list of allowed sites, but Leopard makes the process much easier than before. Instead of having to log in to each controlled account and configure Safari with your list of allowed sites, Leopard gives you a dialog for entering the URLs (and names) of sites you want to allow—without having to leave your own account. This list of allowed sites overrides Leopard’s standard content filter for these sites, but uses the filter for all other sites.
The Mail & iChat screen combines the iChat- and Mail-account “whitelist” functions from Tiger, but provides a cleaner display and makes it easier to add allowed contacts for both types of electronic communication.
One of the features of the enhanced Parental Controls in Leopard is the ability to set when and for how long an account can use the Mac via a Time Limits screen.
A new Time Limits screen provides functionality that was previously available only through third-party software—the capability to restrict when and how long each user can use the Mac. You can set separate time limits for weekdays and weekend days, and you can also set restricted time during which the user can’t log in. For example, you can restrict an account to 2.5 hours per day of use during the week and 3.5 on weekend days, and block access completely from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. on school nights and from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. on weekends. (Unfortunately, you can’t set up multiple ranges, such as 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
The Logs screen lets you monitor the activity of a controlled account. You can view a list of all visited Web sites, as well as all blocked sites that the user attempted to access. You can also see which applications were used and with whom the user chatted using iChat. A pop-up menu lets you restrict the log view to the current day, or the past week, month, three months, six months, or year. You can also group the log display by date or by Web site.
(Keep in mind that any user on your Mac with administrator status can change settings and—perhaps more important—view logs in the Parental Controls pane. Although this is likely not an issue in a home setting where it’s OK for two or more adults to be able to keep an eye on controlled accounts, it could be a drawback in other situations—for example, if you’re using Parental Controls in an office or educational setting. This is another reason why you should give administrator status to accounts only when absolutely necessary.)
It’s easy to set up parental-controlled accounts for multiple users, thanks to the Copy Settings command in Parental Controls.
A useful option—available from the Action menu below the user list—is the ability to manage these controls from another computer. With this option enabled on a Mac, that Mac’s non-admin accounts will appear in the Parental Controls user list on other Macs on your home network, allowing you to configure those accounts’ Parental Controls setting over the network—a convenient option in a lab or home setting.
Tip: Transferring Settings Setting up parental-controlled accounts for multiple kids (or even adults)? If the accounts are going to have the same settings, first configure one of the accounts. Then click the action-menu button at the bottom of the accounts list and choose Copy Settings For “ user ” from the pop-up menu that appears. Finally, select another account and then choose Paste Settings To “ user .” This applies the first account’s Parental Controls settings to the second account, saving you the trouble of having to configure each separately. Even if you don’t plan on configuring each exactly the same, you can use this technique and then go back and make the necessary changes to each account; assuming you’re at least configuring the accounts somewhat similarly, this will still save you a lot of work.
[ Senior Editor Dan Frakes reviews low-cost software at the Mac Gems weblog .]