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Mac Parenting in the Age of the Internet

by - Episode 23 - August 8th, 2004

If you have kids, you must realize that having one or more computers in the home coupled with the ubiquitous availability of the Internet changes the rules of parenting forever. And so, if you have multiple computers in your house, or even a single computer in a more or less public location in your home, you have to ask yourself two questions:

1. Should my kids be allowed to use the computer without direct adult supervision?

and, if so...

2. Should their usage be restricted or monitored somehow?

If the answer to question 1 is, "no," the simple solution is to keep your password to yourself and log out or shut down whenever you're not actually using your Mac(s).

TIP: If this is the case, there are two options in the Security System Preference pane you might want to enable: Require password to wake this computer from sleep or screen saver, and, Log out after X minutes of inactivity.


Figure 1: These two options make it more difficult to use the Mac without permission.
(Click the thumbnail for the full-size image)

But, if your household is anything like mine (with a pre-teen, a teen, a wife, and 5 Macs in 4 different rooms), you'll soon tire of the endless requests to turn on the computer. Furthermore, once your kids reach a certain age, you'll probably want to provide them with some degree of autonomy.

And so, this week I'll show you a few of the tools and tricks available to monitor and manage your kids' use of the computers and the Internet in your home.

For what it's worth, I believe that restricting access completely won't work. If your kid wants to see something badly enough, he/she will find a way to see it -- at a friend's house, public library, or somewhere else. So, since both of my kids understand the meaning of "rules," they have unfettered access to both computers and the Web with only one proviso:

If we catch you using the computer (e.g. the Web, e-mail, instant messaging, DVD, etc.) for inappropriate purposes, you lose your computer privileges for at least a week.

How do we insure compliance? Aaaah… I'm glad you asked. I think the kids comply because they know that at any time a parent might be looking over their shoulder, even if we're in another room (or another city, for that matter). We made it clear that everything they do on the computer is monitored and logged and that we, as parents, may be monitoring their usage in real time, and/or reading the logs of what they've typed in e-mail or chat. In other words, we've made it very clear to our kids that if they're using one of the computers in our home, big brother (actually, big mama and poppa) could be watching at any time.

It seems to work: Over the past two years (since this policy was implemented), we've had only a couple of infractions, and none over the past 12 months.

We haven't done it alone, however; we use a combination of third-party software and our knowledge of Mac OS X to make sure we know what they're using the computers for at all (most?) times.

And so, here are some of the techniques and tools we use or have examined and rejected as inappropriate for our particular needs (but may be perfect for yours):

Remote Monitoring and Control Software

Our primary tool is remote control software -- either Apple's Remote Desktop or Netopia's Timbuktu Pro. These programs both allow you to monitor any computer you've installed the client software upon in real time from anywhere in the world. The kids know it's installed and understand how it works, which makes it an extremely effective deterrent.

So, for example, if I'm at my desk working and want to know what the kids are up to on the computers at the other end of the house, I merely observe their Macs without leaving my seat.


Figure 2: Apple Remote Desktop monitoring three Macs located in other parts of the house.
(Click the thumbnail for the full-size image)

I can enlarge any of the screens to full size as well as take over control of them remotely. So if I happen to see something I disapprove of, I can do several things without even leaving my office:

1. I can send a warning message:


Figure 3: A Remote Desktop message sent to my son, as seen on his display.
(Click the thumbnail for the full-size image)

2. I can take full control of the Mac for more serious action:


Figure 4: I'm about to shut my daughter's computer down even though
I'm sitting in front of my Mac, two rooms removed from hers.
(Click the thumbnail for the very large, full-size image)

When I'm controlling their Mac remotely, their mouse and keyboard are locked out and no matter what they click or type, I'm running the show. I've found they only need see this once or twice before they get the message.

NOTE: Check out the name I gave my daughter's computer: "Dad Could Be Watching U." It's a gentle reminder but it's been quite effective -- she rarely crosses the line, mostly because she never knows if mom or dad is watching from the other room.

Sneaky? Not in my opinion. Both kids are fully aware that we can see what they're doing at any time, which seems to keep them from doing anything really heinous. And I rarely have to observe their screen -- Remote Desktop's main window tells me who is logged in and what program they're using, which is often enough information for me. (How much trouble can they get into when they're using Microsoft Word or The Print Shop?)


Figure 5: Remote Desktop's main window shows who is logged in and what program they're using.
(Click the thumbnail for the very large, full-size image)

NOTE: There's a lot more that I can do using Remote Desktop or Timbuktu Pro, including updating software on all our computers at once, creating reports, and so on, but as far as parenting is concerned, the two big features are real-time observation and remote control.

Logs and Histories

Another tool we use to insure our kids aren't using their computers for inappropriate purposes are logs and browser histories. Every so often we review their AIM/iChat logs, browser histories, and e-mail sent and received. Since they know we do this, the kids rarely type inappropriate words (in e-mail or chat) or surf to inappropriate Web sites.

Of course we both know that these items can easily be compromised, but the kids know that if we find any evidence of tampering (which they know we will), they'll automatically lose their privileges (even if they didn't say or do anything wrong).

So far we've not had a problem, but if we were concerned that the kids were deleting or doctoring the logs or histories, we'd most likely use a program such as File Buddy to turn the enclosing folder(s) invisible. Or, perhaps, we'd create an AppleScript that copies or e-mails their logs and history files to our hard disks or in boxes periodically.

NOTE: Chat (and other) logs are found in Home/Library/Logs. My kids use AOL Instant Messenger so their logs are contained in a subfolder entitled AIM (e.g. Home/Library/Logs/AIM).

Two More Options for Younger Kids

We know of two other options for keeping tabs on your kids' Internet-related activities, neither of which works for our older kids but may very well be perfect if your kids are under, say, 10 years old.

The first is AOL's Parental Controls feature (choose Parental Controls in the AOL menu while logged in using the "master" AOL screen name), which provides almost infinite control over what you kids can and can't do when they are logged onto AOL.

Alas, neither of my kids uses AOL much, so we don't get much use out of this feature. If your kids are younger, and/or AOL is their only form of Internet access, however, Parental Controls are a lifesaver, allowing you to specify exactly what they can and can't access via AOL Better still, you can limit the number of hours or specific times of day they are allowed online. You can even get a report with a list of every thing they did during each session via e-mail.

Last but not least is BumperCar from Freeverse Software (www.freeverse.com), a Web browser designed specifically for kids. According to its box, "BumperCar makes surfing the Internet safe, secure, and fun for your children."

It won a Macworld Best-of-Show award at last January's Macworld Expo in San Francisco and I've heard nothing but good things about it from parents with younger children. Alas, my kids both found it "babyish," but if your kids are under 11 or 12, it may be just the ticket.


Figure 6: The BumperCar browser's main screen.

Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus has been a Macintosh user for a long, long time and has written 49 computer books including Mac OS X Tiger For Dummies and GarageBand for Dummies. He also offers expert technical help and training to Mac users, in real time and at reasonable prices, via telephone, e-mail, and/or unique Internet-enabled remote control software. For more information on Bob and his services, visit www.boblevitus.com.

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