Switcher Sensei: Keep an i on your kids’ Macs

David Braue
5 December, 2010
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If the new Mac in your house has gone to the children, you may well be concerned that you won’t know how to manage access to questionable resources on that Mac with the same efficacy as under Windows. Fear not, however: Mac OS X also includes Parental Controls that give you great control over what the little ones are doing online.

Windows 7’s Parental Controls options, for example, allow the setting of time limits on when the computer can be used, what games can be played and specific programs that can be blocked or allowed on the computer. Mac OS X’s even more-detailed equivalent is accessible by clicking on System Preferences and then Parental Controls, which will bring you to a screen listing the current user accounts.

You’ll need to set up a specific managed account for each child; do this in the System Preferences > Accounts tab (Using the ‘Managed with Parental Controls’ option) then select your new account and click Open Parental Controls…

To make changes, you’ll need to make sure the lock on the bottom-left is unlocked; click it and type in the system’s password so you can make changes (remember to close it once you’ve finished so your littl’n can’t change things without your password).

The Parental Controls window offers five sub-categories of controls. As in Windows, the System tab lets you specify which applications, Dashboard widgets, and other executables your child can access: tick ‘Only allow selected applications’ and use tickboxes to choose which components are accessible. You can also restrict CD and DVD burning, prevent password changes, and so on.

Ticking ‘Use Simple Finder’ adjusts Mac OS X’s Finder appearance so the Dock only contains approved applications, and a reduced subset of menu icons. This may be a godsend for those with tiny children whose curiosity or random keyboard slamming can wreak havoc on the normal desktop.

The Content tab lets you explicitly block or allow specific web sites; use Mac OS X’s best-effort adult website filtering engine (see bit.ly/dqD3wH), which also forces ‘safe’ searches on several web search engines; and filter ‘profanity’ in Mac OS X’s Dictionary, thesauruses, and Wikipedia access.

Mail & iChat can be controlled so your children can only contact specified email addresses – and you can be notified if they try to contact people who aren’t on the list.

As in Windows, the Time Limits tab lets you set specific times the child is allowed to go online. You can limit the number of hours the computer can be used on weekdays and weekends independently, and set up blocks of time on school nights and weekends that the computer cannot be used.

Finally, the Logs tab lets you view websites visited, websites blocked, apps used, and iChat sessions.

You can do all this configuration without having to barge into your child’s room. Well, you’ll have to go in once: on the main Parental Controls screen on the child’s computer, tick the ‘Manage Parental Controls from another computer’ box, and from then on you’ll be able to access the settings of that Mac from any other Mac on the network.

This will let you do your spying without activating any secret tripwires or getting into arguments about trust.

Note that these controls are no substitute for parental supervision of computer (and especially internet) usage, due diligence and good, old-fashioned common sense.

This article originally appeared in the November issue of Australian Macworld magazine.

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