Kid-proof your Mac

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“Don’t take e-mail from strangers.” “Look both ways before you IM.” “Stay away from bad Web sites.” Being a parent can be complicated— and now modern parents have the Internet to worry about, too. Luckily, Tiger’s new parental controls can help.

Whether you share a Mac with your children or they have their own, it’s a snap to create user accounts so that everyone has separate preferences and settings for applications. Now Tiger also lets you set parental controls, or limits on what your kids can do, so it’s easier for them to use the computer—and so they have fewer things to fiddle with (or break).

Setting limits is a great way to get kids used to the Mac. Starting with basic applications and the games they want to play, you can gradually broaden their access to other programs. Parental controls are also a good way to protect your kids from the seamier side of the Internet without investing in add-on software.

One Mac, many users

If you’re the only user on your Mac, you may have noticed that you have special powers. With your secret decoder ring (your password), you’re allowed to install software, make changes to preferences that affect the entire system, and create and delete other user accounts. You’ve got all this power because you’re the administrator. Each Mac has at least one.

But there are also more-limited types of accounts. By default, when you create an account without administrator abilities, it’s called a standard account. Standard users can’t install software for all users or make changes to options in certain System Preferences panes (such as options in Startup Disk and Network, and others that affect the entire computer).

If you restrict an account further by using parental controls, it becomes a managed account. For instance, you can choose exactly which applications managed users can run, and you can limit the tasks they can perform in the Finder.

Create a New Account When you’re ready to get started, open System Preferences, click on the Accounts pane, click on the padlock, and enter your administrator password. (Only administrators can create user accounts.)

You’ll see a list of your Mac’s user accounts. To create a new one, click on the plus-sign icon (+) below the accounts list. A sheet will appear. Enter a user name, a short name (which doesn’t have to match the user’s real name), and a password. Type the password a second time to verify it. Add a password hint if you want. Now you’re ready to make the rules.

House rules

With the user account selected, click on the Parental Controls tab. You’ll see that Tiger lets you set restrictions for five things: Mail, Finder & System, iChat, Safari, and Dictionary (see top screenshot). You have different options for each one. I’ll take you through the application options first.

Mail Worried about your kids receiving sleazy spam or exchanging e-mail messages with strangers? You can set up a list of people (for instance, relatives, their homeroom teachers, and their best friends) with whom they can exchange messages.

Select the Mail option and click on Configure, and you’ll see a sheet where you can add e-mail addresses. Select the Send Permission Emails To option, and Mail will send a message to you, or to someone else, so you can authorize e-mail messages to or from people not on the list. That’s handy if your child is working on a project and needs to send and receive messages from new people. You must be using Mail in Tiger to give this authorization.

iChat As with Mail, you can set up a list of people your child can chat with. Select iChat, click on Configure, and add any names you want.

Safari Until recently, you’ve had to use a special browser, such as Freeverse Software’s $30 BumperCar or app4mac’s $29 KidsBrowser (see macworld .com/0576), if you wanted any control over your kids’ surfing habits. But now Safari’s parental controls cover the basics. You create Safari bookmarks for the sites you want to allow.

Select the Safari option and click on Configure. Now go to Apple: Log Out your user name, and then log back in as your child. Launch Safari. When you try to visit a Web site, Safari will display a page telling you that the program is limited by parental controls. Click on Add Website, and then enter your administrator user name and password in the dialog box. A link to the site will appear in the Bookmarks bar. The user will be able to access sites only through the Bookmarks bar, so you may want to shorten the site name to conserve space.

If you want to add or subtract multiple bookmarks, the easiest way is to click on the locked Show All Bookmarks icon to the left (represented by an open book with a lock). Enter your user name and password, and then organize bookmarks in this view. Notice that Apple provides a Kids folder here with a number of sites you might want to include.

Dictionary If you activate parental controls for the new Dictionary application, it will limit access to “certain words, such as some profanity.” You have no control over which words Dictionary blocks.

A fitting Finder

The Finder & System controls give you the most latitude in choosing what your kids can and can’t do on your Mac. Select Finder & System and click on Configure to see the many limits you can set.

Simple Finder Your first choice is between Simple Finder and Some Limits. Simple Finder is a great choice for young children, or for situations (such as in a computer lab or a library) where you want users to access only certain programs. It presents a very limited interface to the user: the Dock contains three folders (My Applications, Documents, and Shared), and the user can work only with the applications you choose (see bottom screenshot). To set up this list, deselect the Allow option next to Applications, click on the disclosure triangle, and then select the applications you want to allow the user to work with.

Some Limits You can use the Some Limits option to bar a user from certain areas of the Mac. For instance, you can let the user open all System Preferences panes, though he or she won’t be able to change any that require administrator access. You can let the user modify the Dock. (If you don’t choose this, set up the user’s Dock the way you want before turning this option off.) You can also allow the user to administer printers and burn CDs and DVDs.

Your last option is Allow Supporting Programs. Choose it, and any application that you allow can launch any other application (even one you have not allowed). For example, clicking on a Web-site link in the iTunes Music Store will open Safari, even if you have not allowed the user to work with Safari.

Next, decide which applications you want the user to run. As with Simple Finder, you can allow any or all applications, clicking on the disclosure triangles to see the programs available on your Mac. Once you’re done, set up the user’s Dock to contain icons for only the permitted applications. Just log in to the person’s account (don’t set limits yet, or you won’t be able to make changes), drag the icons to (or from) the Dock, log out, and turn off the user’s ability to change the Dock.

The family-friendly Mac

After you set up your kids’ accounts, you’ll know that they can run only the programs and access only the Web sites that you want them to. As time goes by, you can relax these limitations, until your kids become the family’s computer geeks.

[ Kirk McElhearn is the author of Take Control of Users & Accounts in Tiger (TidBits Electronic Publishing, 2005). ]

Tiger lets you set parental controls for five different areas of your Mac. For instance, you can specify the people your children can exchange e-mail and iChat messages with, or restrict them to specific Safari bookmarks that route them toward safe sites.Simple Finder gives kids a minimalist interface in which they can’t break anything. The Dock contains only three folders: My Applications, Documents, and Shared.
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