Protect your kids (and your Mac!) with Parental Controls

The other day, a friend of mine had an embarrassing experience that must happen to every parent at least once: His 8-year-old managed to use his Mac to Google an, ahem, “inappropriate” website. He asked me for advice.

I suggested he made sure Google SafeSearch was enabled, and pointed out software such as NetNanny. Then I rummaged around in System Preferences and found that Leopard has some pretty comprehensive parental filters built in, in the form of Parental Controls. They look pretty handy for keeping your kid safe on the Internet, and also for preventing accidental damage to your applications and OS installation (kids being the curious creatures that they are).

Here’s how to use Parental Controls on your Mac.

Creating an account and enabling Parental Controls

The first thing to do is create a separate account for your child (if you haven’t already). As an administrative user, choose Apple menu > System Preferences, then click Accounts. Click the lock symbol at the bottom left of the dialog (if locked) and enter your password.

Now click the little + (plus) button below the list of accounts. In the sheet that appears, choose Managed with Parental Controls from the New Account drop-down list, and fill in the other fields:

Click the Create Account button to create your child’s account.

If your kid already has an account, simply select it in the Accounts list then select the Enable Parental Controls checkbox to the right of the list.

Accessing Parental Controls

Now click the Open Parental Controls button in the Accounts preference pane to jump to the Parental Controls preferences. (You can also access these preferences by clicking the Parental Controls icon in the main System Preferences window.) Choose your kid’s account name to manage that account:

You can see that there are 5 ways to manage your kid’s access: System, Content, Mail & iChat, Time Limits, and Logs. Here’s an overview of how they work:

System

The System pane lets you control access to the Mac’s apps, files, hardware, and some admin functions:

  • Use Simple Finder: Select this to use a simplified, kid-friendly version of the Finder for the account, with a minimal Dock and simple Finder windows. Only one Finder window is on-screen at any one time. The user only has to click once on apps or documents to open them, and is prevented from messing with system files and settings. You can also choose which apps to display in the My Applications window using the list further down the System pane. Here’s how Simple Finder looks:

  • Only allow selected applications: Regardless of whether Simple Finder is enabled, check this option to choose which apps the user can run. Again, you choose the apps to allow using the checkboxes in the list further down the pane.
  • Can administer printers: Deselect this to prevent the user from selecting printers and changing printer settings.
  • Can burn CDs and DVDs: Deselect this, and the user can’t burn discs.
  • Can change password: If selected, the user can change their password.
  • Can modify the Dock: Select this to let the user add or remove items from their Dock.

Content

The Content pane controls access to content on the Web and in the built-in Dictionary. Select the Hide profanity in Dictionary checkbox to remove access to naughty words (if Timmy searches for a naughty word, Dictionary simply reports it as not found).

Website Restrictions controls what sites your kid can visit. Select the Try to limit access to adult websites automatically option, and Mac OS looks at things like URLs and page content to determine if pages should be blocked. (This also blocks, for example, Google searches for “sex”.) You can click Customize to create a whitelist of sites to always allow, or add additional sites to block.

To really lock down Web access, select the Allow access to only these websites option. All sites not in the list are blocked. You can then add and remove sites from the list to specify exactly which sites your child can visit.

Although the Website Restrictions section has a Safari icon, it does in fact prevent access to blocked sites from any browser, not just Safari.

Mail & iChat

In the Mail & iChat pane, you can control who your child can exchange email and chat messages with. Select the Limit Mail checkbox to prevent the user sending email to, or receiving email from, anyone not on the allowed list. Select Limit iChat to do the same for instant messaging.

To add allowed people to the list, click the + (plus) button at the bottom of the list. You can choose people in your address book, or enter new people. For each person, you can specify their email address, their AIM screen-name, or their Jabber account.

If you’ve elected to block email, you can select the Send permission requests to checkbox, then enter your email address in the box. Then, any email messages sent to your child from people not on the approved list are forwarded to you for checking. Selecting this option also gives your child the option of clicking a button to send you a permission request  message if they want to send email to someone not on the list.

The settings in this pane only work for the Mail and iChat apps, so you’ll need to block other apps such as Thunderbird or AIM in the System pane, as well as block sites such as mail.yahoo.com (if your child uses Yahoo! Mail) in the Content pane.

Time Limits

Use this pane to control when, and how long, your kid can login to the Mac:

  • Weekday time limits controls how much total time the user can spend on the Mac each day during the week (Monday-Friday). You can choose from 30 minutes to 8 hours. The user is warned when they have 15 minutes left, at which point the time can be extended by an administrator (i.e. you) if little Timmy is persuasive enough.
  • Weekend time limits is similar, but controls the daily access time for Saturday and Sunday.
  • Bedtime lets you choose the hours of the day when the child can’t use the Mac. Select School nights and choose a start and end time to block access each school night (Sunday-Thursday). Select Weekend to do the same for Friday and Saturday nights (when, presumably, Timmy can stay up a little later).

Logs

If you’re concerned about exactly what little Timmy is doing on your Mac, head over to the Logs pane. You can view different time periods by choosing from the Show activity for drop-down menu, and choose an activity type in the Log Collections list on the left. The Group By drop-down lets you group the logs by type (e.g. website or application) or by date.

For each activity type, you can view the list of activities in the pane on the right. Use the little disclosure arrows to drill down. Click an item to select it. You can then check out logged web pages or applications by clicking the Open button at the bottom of the list, and block or allow specific web pages or applications by clicking the Block/Allow button.

Summary

While it’s not entirely foolproof, the Mac’s Parental Controls give you a fairly comprehensive way to control and monitor your child’s access to your Mac. Depending on your point of view, you might find some aspects, such as the logging, somewhat Big Brother-ish; then again, if you’re worried that your child is hanging out with unsavoury types online then it’s one way to reassure yourself without having to peer over their shoulder whenever they’re on the Mac.

Oh, and it’s probably stating the obvious, but if you do set up Parental Controls for your kid(s) don’t forget to set a secret password on your own account! :)

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