Parental controls done right

Just gave my iMac to my 6 year old daughter, so I got a chance to explore the parental controls in Leopard. Which is why I gave her this machine in the first place.

Now, this stuff is done right all the way.Parental controls logo

First, having a limited user account on a Mac is not a problem for anything, which is a major first step. Then I set up her account to have “parental controls”, which is just a checkbox to click. Then I used system preferences on *my* Mac Pro, went to Parental controls, saw her machine with her account listed and logged in twice, once as admin on my machine, once as admin on hers.

After that, I can select, one by one, the apps she can use. For Safari, I can enter the websites she can access (I can approve new sites on the fly on her machine using my password, for that once or permanently). For iChat I can set which users she can chat with, except I simply disabled it for now. For Mail, I can set which email addresses she can write to and receive from.

Selecting allowed apps

Interestingly, if she receives mail from an unapproved mail address, it’s redirected to my account and my Mac Mail shows me the email and asks me if this source is allowed to write to her. If I approve, inside Mac Mail, the address is added to her list of approved emails and she gets the mail in the next round. Same thing if she writes a mail to an unapproved address, she gets a popup saying it’s not approved and gives her the choice of asking for permission. If she does, I get the mail and again get the chance to approve it or decline.

I can also set how many hours per day she can use the machine. (Buggy, see update below.) One setting for weekdays, another for weekends, and there is even a setting for excluded hours, for instance after bedtime.

Hours per day setting

Lastly, a very complete logging. Every app she used, number of times and for how long, plus date and time. Every website visited, including the URL parameters, so I can, from my own machine, see exactly *which* videos she watched on YouTube, for instance.

Log of URLs

Not everything is as totally controlled, for instance Skype is an allow/decline kind of thing. I can’t lock down who she adds, but I sure can check visually every now and then. If I’d excluded Skype and only allowed iChat, I would have had total control, but I can’t expect everyone to go get a Mac. Not just quite yet, anyway.

There’s just one thing missing and that is that I don’t get copies of all her email. But OTOH, that would be too intrusive, I think, especially since she can’t receive or send to anyone I haven’t already approved.

I’m amazed at how simple and well done this is in Leopard. Not really a surprise, but still. To me it’s worth giving her the iMac, just for this one thing.

Update on Feb 13, 2008: the time limits on use seem to only work intermittently and are thus unreliable. Depending on use they may not kick in. To my daughter’s delight, she seems able to keep watching YouTube videos forever, regardless of settings.

6 thoughts on “Parental controls done right”

  1. Under a corporate regime, you’d be required to inform the users that you were logging and monitoring them. I’m interested how you’re planning to handle this in the home setting! 🙂

  2. I already handled it. I showed my daughter exactly how it works, what I do and can do and that I see exactly where she browses and that I read her initial emails. The only thing I didn’t tell her was my admin password. She wasn’t upset, just intrigued, and immediatly proceeded to try to guess my password. (Must be in the genes.) Also, she’s only six years old, an older child might be more resentful, but then I’d probably use less intrusive settings. I wouldn’t let it turn into a battle of wills, that’s the wrong way to go. I think she understands that I don’t want to cramp her lifestyle, but that I want to help her avoid making mistakes.

  3. Good question and I didn’t think of that. I tried it out now, and the websites I visit with private browsing on in Safari still show up in the logs pane on my machine. So it makes no difference.

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