My little boy just turned a year old. While I've kept him off a computer so far, it's inevitable that just as he will one day sleep in a...

Share story

My little boy just turned a year old. While I’ve kept him off a computer so far, it’s inevitable that just as he will one day sleep in a big bed, attend school and listen to music I find hideous, he will also spend a lot of time in the not-too-distant future connected to the Internet.

This is a terrifying concept no matter what your views are about what content on the Internet is appropriate for consumption by everyone, by just adults, or by certain lower primates. There’s far too much within reach that’s inexplicable or awful for young minds.

Because I don’t think a distributed, international, interconnected network can be reformed, the only rationale alternative for parents is locking down home computers.

Apple has had some interest in parental controls for some time, and Mac OS X includes some excellent built-in controls that should defeat youngsters; teenagers, however, are another story. Examples in this column refer to Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger), although most steps apply in 10.3 (Panther), and some in 10.2 (Jaguar).

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

To start with, create a limited account. Open System Preferences from the Apple menu, click the Accounts icon, and then click the Lock icon at the bottom. Enter an administrator password to unlock the preferences pane.

Now you can click the plus sign at the bottom left and create a new account. Enter whatever name and password you want to use — keeping the password secret from your kid will be a big part of securing the computer. Clicking the key icon to the right of the Password field displays the Password Assistant, which helps determine how secure your selected password is, and can also generate a random password for you.

Leave Allow User to Administer This Computer unchecked; administrators have full computer access, thus defeating control. Then, click Create Account.

Select the new account in the list at the left of the pane and click the Parental Controls tab. Tiger lets you choose from a list of standard items to restrict access (or not).

Checking Finder & System, and then clicking Configure brings up the most extensive set of controls. You can choose exactly which programs may be launched and what behavior can be carried out. For instance, you can prevent or allow this account from changing what programs appear in the Dock.

iChat and Mail can be set up with a limited list of approved buddies and e-mail addresses, which can assuage the fear that kids are talking to people you don’t want them to. (If Finder & System allows any program to launch, kids could install other chat or mail programs, however.)

For Web browsing, Safari offers only per-domain access control. You need to log in as a limited account to configure Safari’s settings. If you click Login Options at the lower left of the pane, and then check Enable Fast User Switching, you can keep your current account logged in while bringing up the limited account. This is easier than logging out and back in.

Once logged in, launch Safari, select Preferences from the Safari menu (at far left), and click the Security icon. Check Enable Parental Controls and enter an administrative user name and password.

Only Web sites that are listed in the bookmarks can be visited, but this is a pretty broad brush.

For example, add “yahoo.com” to the list and anything hosted at any domain that ends in yahoo.com can be visited.

If you try to visit sites that aren’t in the bookmarks list, you’re notified that you can’t. A parent can add the link from that notification by again entering the administrator’s account name and password.

Much more sophisticated software is available from other companies, of course; these three programs have free trial periods for their downloads.

BumperCar 2.0 (Mac OS X 10.3 or later, www.freeverse.com, $29) is a replacement browser that uses the same technology as Apple’s Safari. Its very refined controls include tools to limit total browsing hours or which hours browsing is allowed, as well as offering fine distinctions in the kind of sites that may be visited.

KidsBrowser (Mac OS X 10.3 or later, www.app4mac.com, $29) fills the whole screen and offers tracking and other features on top of Safarilike browsing. It tries a little too hard with cute noises and nonstandard interfaces, and has some slightly odd turns of phrase in dialogs that appear to be translation errors.

Intego’s Content Barrier (Mac OS 8.6 or later, 10.1.1 or later, www.intego.com, $69.95) has a more technical focus split between tracking a kid’s actions and blocking their unacceptable behavior.

These technical solutions don’t replace parental oversight. Discuss appropriate use with your kids, warn them about communicating with strangers, and keep the computer in a public part of the house.

The access controls avoid inadvertent exposure for young minds.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists