Keep kids safe online

It’s the unwise parent who grants their young child unguarded access to the Internet. Thankfully, Mac OS X provides some protection with its built-in Parental Controls. If you’re concerned about what your child might see online—or are simply interested in limiting the time your Mac-obsessed spawn spends in front of the computer—join us on this tour of Snow Leopard’s Parental Controls.

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Create a controlled account

Before you can control what your kids can and can’t do with the Mac, you have to create an account with controls. Doing so is simple.

Launch System Preferences, select the Accounts preference, and in the resulting Accounts window click the Lock icon at the bottom of the screen. When prompted, enter an administrator’s name and password and click OK. Below the list of accounts click on the plus-sign (+) button and in the sheet that appears select Managed With Parental Controls from the New Account pop-up menu. Fill in the remaining fields with name, account name, password, password verification, and, optionally, a password hint. Click Create Account and the controlled account is born.

To begin configuring the account, click the Open Parental Controls button at the bottom of the Accounts window. If you don’t care to configure the account now, you can always navigate to these controls later by launching System Preferences and then choosing Parental Controls. The controlled account you created will appear in a list on the left side of the Parental Controls window.

Once you’ve created a controlled account, you can choose to administer it remotely from another computer on your local network. This allows you, for example, to sit at your MacBook Pro in the home office and change parental controls on the family iMac in the living room. When creating such a remotely controlled account, click the small gear icon at the bottom of the accounts list and choose Allow Remote Setup.

To administer your child’s account from your computer (versus the computer on which you’ve set up the controlled account), click the lock icon and enter an administrator’s name and password. Now select the name of the controlled account on the other computer. In the window that appears, enter an administrator’s name and password for the Mac that has the controlled account. After you’ve done this successfully you can use all the tabs within Parental Controls to configure and monitor the other Mac’s controlled account.

Monitor kids' activities
Don’t want to leave the comfort of your own computer to see what your kids have been up to? You can keep an eye on them with a remotely monitored account.

Simplify the system

New or inexperienced users—regardless of age—can find themselves lost when they first boot up a Mac. Use Parental Controls to narrow down their choices to only the programs and functions they need and you’ll make the computer that much easier to use. Do this by switching on the Simple Finder in the Parental Controls’ System tab. With this option enabled, the account displays just four menus in the Finder—the Apple, Finder, File, and Help menus. The Apple menu has very few options—About This Mac, Force Quit, Sleep, and Log Out. The Dock contains only Applications, Documents, and Shared folders. And when you click the Applications folder a window appears where application icons are displayed. A single click launches an application.

Simplify the Finder
With judicious use of Parental Controls’ System tab you can simplify (and limit) the Mac’s interface.

Within this same window you can select exactly which applications you’d like to allow the account to use. You can allow Mail and Safari, but not iChat, for example. You can also allow or deny administration of printers, disc burning, the ability to change the password, and modify the contents of the Dock.

Keep things G-rated

If your primary interest is ensuring that your offspring sees kid-appropriate content only, the Content tab is for you. In the upper portion of this window you can enable an option that hides profanity in the Mac’s Dictionary—thus preventing your child from stumbling upon $%&@#, @!$**&, and the ever-popular #$!%&!!.

Lower down in the window is the Website Restrictions area. Here you’ll find three options—Allow Unrestricted Access to Websites, Try to Limit Access to Adult Websites Automatically, and Allow Access to Only These Websites. The first is self-explanatory. The second option, when enabled, uses Apple’s filters to screen out mature content. (If you choose this option, you can also click a Customize button to include or exclude specific Websites.) Enable the third option and a list appears that includes such kid-friendly sites as Discovery Kids, PBS Kids, Scholastic.com, and Smithsonian Institute. You can add more sites by clicking the plus-sign (+) button at the bottom of the window.

Supervise their socializing

Every parent wants to socialize their child, but that doesn’t mean a responsible parent won’t keep an eye on who that child chooses to be social with. Parental Controls’ Mail & iChat tab can help. Here you find options to limit either or both Mail and iChat. In each case you click a Plus (+) button to add addresses or chat names to a sheet that appears. When you enable the Limit Mail option you additionally have the opportunity to have permission requests e-mailed to you.

Supervise kids' socializing
Parental Controls let you determine exactly who your child interacts with in e-mail and iChat.

When you enable this option you must enter an e-mail address for the person responsible for administering the account (you, most likely). When an unapproved sender attempts to send a message to the parentally controlled account, the message is forwarded to the e-mail address you entered. If, conversely, the user of the controlled account tries to send a message to someone not on the approved list, you receive a different message, asking permission to add that person to the list of approved recipients. You can grant that permission by clicking a link in the alert e-mail message you receive.

Set time limits

Much as we all love our Macs, you can get too much of a good thing. Within the Time Limits tab you can configure specific times that your child is allowed to use the computer. Specifically you can separately set weekday times limits, weekend time limits, and bedtime limits. The first two time limits let you broadly choose how many minutes and hours the managed account is allowed to use the Mac per day, starting at a half-hour and ending at eight hours. 15 minutes before the times expires, a message appears (along with a spoken warning) letting the child know that they have just 15 minutes left. Within the warning dialog box is a pop-up menu that allows the user to extend the time. But in order to do that, they need an administrator’s password (meaning that they’ll shout “Hey [parental unit], I need more time to finish my homework, gimme another half hour!”)

Set time limits
Miraculous as the Mac may be, you should limit a child’s time in front of it. The Time Limits tab lets gives you multiple options.

In Snow Leopard, your child can see how much time remains by clicking on the menu bar’s clock. Do so and you see something like Parental Controls Time Remaining 0:23.

Bedtime limits are exactly what they appear to be. This option lets you set specific hours that the Mac can be used by someone with a controlled account. You can, for example, shut the user out from 9 PM until 8 AM. Within this area you can separately configure school nights (Sunday through Thursday) and weekend nights (Friday and Saturday).

Track activities

Finally, Parental Controls lets you see exactly what your kids have been up to on the Mac via the Logs tab. In this area you can read logs that detail the Websites visited, Websites blocked, applications launched, and chat sessions conducted. Select the Websites Viewed entry, select an item (Macworld, for example), and click the triangle next to the entry, and you see the date and time the site was visited. If you double-click on the entry, Safari opens and takes you to that Web page.

The other entries work similarly. Select Websites Blocked and you see the sites’ names and have the opportunity to visit them. The Applications entry indicates the applications launched and the date and time when that occurred. Choose iChat and you can see who your kid was chatting with.

At any time you can restrict a Website, application, or iChat buddy that appears in one of these lists. Just select the site, application, or buddy you want to give the axe to and click the Restrict button that appears at the bottom of the window.

Make your Mac a safe space

OS X’s Parental Controls are ideally suited for younger computer users you want to protect from accidentally visiting the wrong Website or conversing with strangers. Older tech-savvy kids who are bent on circumventing Parental Controls will find ways to do it—the Mac's tools are broad rather than bullet-proof. (If you're looking for more control, check out third-party programs such as ContentWatch's $40 Net Nanny for Mac 2.0, Intego's $80 Internet Security Barrier X6, or InternetSafety.com's $50 per year Safe Eyes.) Regardless of a child’s age, you can help monitor what’s happening on the Mac by placing the family computer in a public place—the living room or kitchen counter rather than the child’s bedroom, for example. With a little work up front, you can make your Mac a safe space for kids to explore and have fun.

Tomorrow: Activities and Websites for kids' idle hours during the summer.

[Christopher Breen is a Macworld senior editor.]

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