As a parent you become acutely aware of things your kids like and dislike. The thing that my kids like the most is when they get a chance to use the computer or an iOS device.
I’m still not exactly sure what it is about the computer that hooks kids in, but my theory is it’s all about the movement, the games and the interactivity that just beats anything else, TV included.
I’m showing my age now, but when I was a kid computers were just new. I still remember our Apple II and then Apple IIe. I remember for a special treat dad would move the colour Panasonic TV and somehow plug it in to the IIe and we’d be able to play Space Invaders in colour.
Then around the time I was eight we got our first Mac, the ‘Fat’ Mac with 512kB (yes, that’s kilobytes) of memory. There were probably games before Dark Castle but that’s the one that has forever stuck in my head.
Back in the ’80s it was mostly about games and there was no internet so computing was very much a personal affair – in contrast to today where even the most simple games are part of a network where kids can compete against other kids for points and prizes.
Computers are now heavily used in kids’ education. My son, for instance, uses Reading Eggs to improve his reading skills, and Mathletics for his numeracy. He gets the logins and codes from his school so it’s clear that computers are for more than just games.
But like all aspects of technology there’s a dark side to combining kids and computers. Standard parenting rules still apply; moderate your kids’ use of computers otherwise they can become obsessed.
Also make sure the computer is somewhere central rather than locked away in their room; that way you can monitor what they’re doing. It’s all too easy for your children to stumble on to inappropriate games or websites.
In fact, the No.1 rule according to the experts is to engage with your child and understand what they are doing on the computer. By communicating, you’ll be able to guide them in the right direction.
As parents you should be aware of the Parental Control features built-in to your Mac. They are your friends. If you set them up the right way, they can be like having another set of eyes watching and moderating your child’s computer use.
Control Panel: Limiting your kid’s access to apps is a simple as ticking some boxes.
SETTING UP PARENTAL CONTROLS IN MAC OS X LION
OS X Lion – launched earlier this year – introduces some additional Parental Control features which continue to be the easiest and cheapest way to ensure your kids remain safe on the internet and to limit their use of the computer.
As with older versions of OS X, to set up Parental Control you’ll first need to create an additional user account without administration privileges. To do this, open the Systems Preferences and go to Accounts. Click on the ‘+’ and enter the details of the child’s account.
If you have more than one child using the computer you can set up multi accounts that have different limits. For example, you might want to provide your four-year-old with an hour of access per day while your 10-year-old can have three hours. Do this by setting each child up with their own account.
As a side note, I think it’s good practise to let your kids take responsibility for their own computing environment, something that giving them their own accounts will achieve.
If your child is old enough to read, write and type it’s probably a good idea to set up a password for their account. Like it or not, understanding passwords is important in today’s society where most information is now accessed via the internet.
Once the new account is enabled, click in the Users and Groups preference check the ‘Enable Parental Controls’ box and click the ‘Open Parental Controls…’ button.
In Lion, the preferences in the Parental Controls System Preference are broken down into five main sections.
One of the biggest changes in Lion is the Mac App Store. Lion Parental Controls leverages the App Store by letting you specify what sort of apps your child can install. You can choose an appropriate rating depending on the age of your child and limit his or her ability to install apps.
As in older versions of OS X you can also manually specify which applications your kids have access to. For example, you can restrict the applications they use to Safari and Microsoft Word and disable their use of other applications including games and system preferences.
The Apps tab also lets you choose to enable the Simple Finder, which provides a simplified view of the computer desktop; it should only be used if your child is having a hard time with the computer. In my experience kids are pretty savvy and don’t normally require this mode.
A new checkbox in Lion also allows you to choose whether your kid can modify the dock.
This tab used to be called ‘Content’ and is a very important one. It allows you to control the websites that your kids can visit. There are three different options to choose, depending on the maturity and ability of your children.
The first option, ‘Allow unrestricted access to websites’ lets your child browse freely without restriction.
The second option ‘Try to limit access to adult websites automatically’ restricts Safari to websites it deems safe.
According to an Apple support document (support. apple.com/kb/HT2900), when this option is selected, the internet content filter does its best to block websites with inappropriate content. To do this, the internet content filter relies on the RTA (Restricted to Adults) website, created by the Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection.
The idea behind the RTA website is that the adult industry lists itself as a member of the RTA in an effort to help parents prevent their children from viewing age-inappropriate content.
With the Web mode enabled, you can also check to see the sites that your child has accessed by tapping on the ‘Logs’ button at the bottom of the Web tab.
The Logs window lets you view activity by time (week, month, year and all) and group the activity by website, application or iChat.
It’s important to remember that no filtering system is perfect and in some situations the automatic internet content filter could mistakenly block a safe website or allow an adult-oriented website. For example, if the website uses an uncommon language or if there is very little text on the page.
For websites that use SSL encryption (the URL will usually begin with https), the internet content filter is unable to examine the encrypted content of the page. For this reason, encrypted websites must be explicitly allowed using the Always Allow list. Encrypted websites that are not on the Always Allow list will be blocked by the automatic internet content filter.
Another approach is to check the ‘Allow access to only these websites’ checkbox and then explicitly list the websites that your kids are allowed to use.
This tab allows you to restrict email and iChat access to specific addresses. For example, if you only want your kids to email friends or family members, you can add their email and iChat addresses, which restricts messaging to only those addresses you add.
An option at the bottom of the window ‘Send permission request to’ allows you to enter your own email address to receive notifications when your child attempts to send an email to an address that you haven’t specified in the Mail & iChat tab.
One of the biggest problems with kids and computers is that they just don’t know when enough is enough. My five-year-old son would happily sit on a computer for an entire day.
With the Time Limits tab you can specify time limits for use. The controls are granular enough so you can, for instance, specify different time limits for both weekdays and weekends.
You can also restrict access during certain times of the day. For instance, you can specify that on school nights the computer can’t be used between 9pm and 6am. The same options are available for the weekend.
Some additional options are available in this tab. You can hide swearing in the Dictionary app, limit printer administration features, restrict users from burning CDs and DVDs in the Finder and disable users from changing their passwords.
THE SIMPLE FINDER
The Simple Finder provides a simplified interface for kids and others who only need access to a few items on your Mac.
Once Simple Finder is enabled users will have limited access to files and applications on the computer. Only three folders will be visible in the Dock once Simple Finder is enabled; My Applications, Documents and Shared. Any documents that Simple Finder users create are automatically saved in their documents folder and users can only load applications that are allowed (via the Parental Controls preference).
To turn on Simple Finder open the Parental Controls System Preference and select the Simple Finder checkbox under the Apps tab. By default users will have access to Apple applications, however you can add other applications to this list by ticking more under the ‘other’ list.
Tap to permit: Select which apps and functions you wish to enable or disable in iOS.
RESTRICTIONS IN IOS
With kids spending more and more time on iOS devices, Apple has also made good progress improving Parental Controls in iOS 5. It’s also worth stating that Restrictions in iOS are more about preventing your child from spending money or deleting apps from your iOS device rather than explicitly monitoring what they do while using it.
To turn on Parental Controls (actually called Restrictions) in iOS you’ll need to open the Settings app and tap on General. Then, find the option for Restrictions and tap ‘Enable Restrictions’. iOS will prompt you to set a four-digit PIN before you can turn it on.
Once enabled, you’ll notice many different options that you use can be toggled on or off; for instance Safari, YouTube and Installing Apps. Turning on any of these restrictions will limit the use of the relevant app or feature.
When you try to access the feature iOS will present you with a PIN screen and provide access to the feature once you input the correct PIN.
As well as restricting apps you can also restrict access to changes to your location preferences and accounts. This is a great addition to iOS and addresses one of the complaints I hear from parents whose kids have deleted an email account accidentally.
If you do want to let your kids access the App Store you can turn on restrictions for app ratings. For instance, you can restrict them to only downloading apps with a G rating. Likewise for videos and music.
Another common issue is kids downloading free games only to spend a fortune on in-app purchasing. Well, Apple has also addressed this by providing the ability to disable in-app purchases. If you’ve got kids, I suggest you turn this on.
Lastly, the Restrictions settings allow you to control access to multi-player games and adding friends via Game Center.
KEEPING YOUR KIDS SAFE ONLINE
Many young Australians are technologically savvy but are unaware of the dangers of the internet, which include cyber stalking, identity theft and phishing.
While software is available to help kids stay safe online, the best approach remains pro-active education about the risks of the internet.
A new website aimed at educating the public about Cyber Security is called Stay Smart Online. The comprehensive Stay Smart Online provides simple steps that internet users can take to protect their personal and financial information online.
As parents it’s important to understand practical steps you can take to protect your children from cyber crime but it’s also important for your kids to understand the issues too.
One area of the Stay Smart Online website focuses on kids’ education and introduces a program called Budd:e, an education package that provides a fun way for kids to learn about how to be safe and secure on the internet.
The site also provides a comprehensive set of quizzes and self-assessment tools that let you evaluate how safe your computer is and how good your knowledge is about the risks of being online.
Handy advice: The Australian Government’s Stay Smart Online website is an important resource for anyone who uses the internet.
According to Stay Smart Online the top tips for safe computing (that apply to adults and kids) are:
- Make sure your computer is secure
- Set strong passwords, particularly for important online accounts and change them regularly
- Stop and think before you share any personal or financial information – about you, your friends or family. Don’t disclose any identity information (driver’s licence, medicare number, birth date, address) through email or online unless you have initiated the contact and you know the other person or people involved.
- Don’t give your email address out without needing to. Think about why you are providing it, what the benefit is for you and whether it will mean you
are sent emails you don’t want.
- Be very suspicious of emails from people you don’t know, particularly if they promise you money, good health or a solution to all your problems. The same applies for websites. Remember, anything that looks too good to be true usually is.
- Limit the amount and type of identity information you post on social networking sites. Don’t put sensitive, private or confidential information on your public profile.
- When shopping online use a secure payment method such as PayPal, BPay or your credit card. Avoid money transfers and direct debit, as these can be open to abuse. Never send your bank or credit card details via email.
- When using a public computer, don’t submit or access any sensitive information online. Public computers may have a keystroke logger installed, which can capture your password, credit card number and bank details.
Five top Mac apps for education
Solar Walk – 3D Solar System Model ($2.99)
Solar Walk is a 3D Solar System model that enables users to navigate through space and time, observe all the planets in close-up, learn their trajectories, inner structure, the history of their exploration, points of interest and more.
Users can navigate in 3D, zoom in and out of the solar system and view the entire galaxy from their computer.
Music Keys (Free)
Music Keys is a game that helps teach kids how to recognise piano keyboards using sounds and colours on a virtual keyboard. The Music Keys game has two modes; train and play. In Train mode kids hear and see a tone and their task is to locate the same tone on the piano keyboard. In Play mode kids are challenged to recognise as many tones as possible in 60 seconds.
With the prevalence of calculators and computers that help kids do maths today, some think the core skill of doing arithmetics in ones’ head has been lost.
Mathemagics aims to help kids practise mental arithmetic in a fun and engaging application. The app features nearly 60 maths tricks broken down into lessons that let you learn and practise at the same time.
The app provides statistics to help you see your progress and a full-screen mode makes the application immersive.
If you’ve got older kids who struggle to keep up with their homework then iHomework might just be the answer.
iHomework lets students keep up-to-date with school work, grades, to-dos, teacher’s information and almost everything else they need during the school year. The easy to use, clean interface of iHomework plus the integration with iCal makes it easy for your child to keep up.
Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing ($41.99)
Mavis Beacon, the classic Mac typing tutor, is now available on the App Store. As well as the regular typing tutorial, the latest 2011 version lets users practise typing with lyrics from their favourite iTunes playlists. There are also the 17 high-resolution action games to help students have fun while typing, and the option to set automatic iCal reminders to make sure students practise typing regularly.
Five top iOS apps for education
Intro to Letters ($4.99)
Intro to Letters, an app by Montessorium (a publisher now synonymous with great education titles for iOS) is a great way to introduce your kid to the basics of language and the alphabet. The app walks your child through the alphabet and introduces both writing skills and pronunciation skills. The user interface is tastefully done and animations are smooth. I’ve road-tested it on my kids and they love it.
Intro to Maths ($5.49)
The Maths version of Intro to Letters introduces your kids to the concepts of numbers, maths and counting. The app will show your child the basics from how to read, write and understand numbers from 0-9 and also introduce more advanced concepts like problem-solving skills and an introduction to odds and evens. Like Intro to Letters, the interface is beautifully designed and your kids will love it.
ABC Wildlife ($1.99)
If, like my kids, your kids love animals, ABC Wildlife is a great way to introduce them to the world of letters, words and animals. The app associates letters with animals, and then presents beautiful visuals (images and videos) that help reinforce the spelling of the animal and the letters in the word. For older kids there are also plenty of interesting facts about animals included in the app too.
MSO Learn (Free)
As part of the team that created MSO Learn, I’m proud of the app’s ability to educate kids about the inner workings of an orchestra. MSO Learn is an easy and interactive way to introduce your kids to the sounds that the different instruments make, and can help them learn more about what makes each of those instruments special.
Field Guide to Victorian Fauna (Free)
Published by Museum Victoria, the Field Guide to Victorian Fauna is a great resource that educates kids about the animals found in Victoria. The app provides detailed descriptions of animals and maps of distribution, plus it teaches kids about endangered species in an easy to use, interactive app.