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Configuring Parental Controls

Last week we explored the Users & Groups system preference. In that lesson I didn't throughly explain the Parental Controls preference. Now's the time.

It's the unwise parent who grants their young child unguarded access to the Internet. Thankfully, Mountain Lion provides some protection with its built-in Parental Controls. If you're concerned about what your child might see online--or are simply keen to limit the time your Mac-obsessed spawn spends in front of the computer--you should take a long look at Parental Controls.

Don't have a child (or at least one who needs managing)? Parental Controls isn't just for parents and kids. If you're the more experienced Mac user in a household and are setting up a Mac for someone new to it, it's not a terrible idea to impose some restrictions on that account. This isn't for the purpose of protecting that person from iffy content, but rather to simplify the interface and keep them from getting lost.

Setting up a controlled account

Before you can control what someone 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 Users & Groups 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 (+) 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 User, 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 this account from your computer (versus the computer on which you've set up the controlled account), choose the Parental Controls system preference, click the lock icon, and enter an administrator's name and password. Now select the name of the controlled account on the other computer (its name will appear under the Other Computers heading). In the sheet 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.

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 Use Simple Finder in the Parental Controls' Apps 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.

Within this same window you can select exactly which applications you'd like to allow the account to use by enabling the Limit Applications option. You can allow Mail and Safari, but not Messages, for example. You can also filter applications you've purchased from the Mac App Store by their rating. For instance, you could allow those applications rated appropriate for ages up to 9+ (see screenshot at right), but nothing with a more mature rating. In addition, if you haven't enabled the Use Simple Finder option, you can choose to keep the user from modifying the Dock.

Avoiding Web entanglements

If your primary interest is ensuring that your offspring sees only kid-appropriate Internet content, the Web tab is for you. 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 Institution. You can add more sites by clicking the Plus (+) 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' People tab can help. Here you find options to limit Game Center, Mail, and Messages. In the case of Game Center you have two options--Allow Joining Game Center Multiplayer Games and Allow Adding Game Center Friends. For Mail and Messages, in each case you click a Plus (+) button to add addresses or chat names to a sheet that appears. (These addresses can be pulled directly from your contacts, or you can create new contacts and, optionally, add them to the Contacts list.)

When you enable the Limit Mail option you also have the opportunity to have permission requests emailed to you. When you enable this option you must enter an email 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 email 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 email 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 time 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 8 hours; 15 minutes before a time 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 the child will need an administrator's password (meaning that he or she will shout "Hey, [Mom or Dad], I need more time to finish my homework, gimme another half hour!")

In Mountain Lion, 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).

About Other and Logs

The last tab--Other--includes five options: Disable Use of Dictation, Hide Profanity in Dictionary, Limit Printer Administration, Limit CD and DVD Burning, and Disable Changing the Password. These on/off options nicely describe exactly what they do. The final one might raise an eyebrow, however. "You mean a kid can change his password and keep me from getting into his account!?" Fortunately, no. As someone with an administrator account you have the ability to change that account's password. Just select it in Users & Groups, click Reset Password, and enter and confirm a password of your choosing.

A final option that you'll find in the Apps, Web, and People tabs is Logs. Just click on the Logs button, and a sheet appears that contains four entries--Websites Visited, Websites Blocked, Applications, and Messages. In this area you can read logs that detail what this user has been up to. Select Websites Visited, say, select an item (Macworld, for instance), click the triangle next to the entry, and you'll 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 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 Messages, and you can see who your kid was chatting with.

At any time you can restrict a website, application, or Messages 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 Block button that appears at the bottom of the window.

Next week: Dictation and Speech

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