Without some layer of protection, your kids are exposed to all kinds of risks and dangers online. Even using the basic security features offered on your router, you probably aren’t doing as much as you could, which is where Windows parental controls come into play.
Microsoft began offering parental control with Windows Vista and has gradually improved them with each new version. Windows 7’s parental controls are pretty basic, but they’re effective and much better than having nothing at all. Plus, they can be used in conjunction with something like OpenDNS to filter websites and online activity.
That’s the kind of peace of mind you need and using parental controls is a great way to at least stay on top of what’s going on within your home network. In this article, we’re going to talk briefly about implementing user accounts correctly, and then we’ll detail the parental controls baked into Windows 7.
The Importance of User Accounts
You want to always make sure that every user has their own account, and they’re assigned the right type of account. For example, you don’t want your kids to have administrator accounts, they should definitely have standard accounts, which prevent users from installing applications and making changes to settings without admin privileges.
Use Administrator Accounts with Care
When you first set up your primary Windows profile, it will be an administrator account. Thereafter, you will always have at least one administrator account on your computer.
The administrator account is akin to having root access, meaning anyone with administrator privileges can do whatever they want: install software, change settings, and generally mess things up if care is not exercised. To that end, your administrator account should be minimally used and well protected by a nice, strong password.
We recommend you use your admin account to install all the software you want on your system, and for everything else, use a standard account. From hereon, if you need to make any changes, such as installing a new application, you can elevate your standard account briefly by entering your admin password.
Standard Accounts for Day-to-Day Use
Standard accounts are like admin-lite. Standard accounts let you use the computer normally but if you want to change security settings or make changes that will affect other users, you will need to provide an administrator’s password. Standard accounts also prevent you from making mistakes, such as deleting important system files.
In order to use a standard account, you first need to create or convert one to an administrator account. It’s not a terribly difficult process, but we have a nice little how-to on it if you need some help.
For example, maybe you created two administrator accounts but, upon reading this, you decide you only want one. You can open the User Accounts control panel and convert any administrator account to a standard one, and vice-versa. When all is said and done, we recommend using a standard account for day-to-day use.
Guest Accounts for Temporary Visitors
A guest account isn’t something you’ll personally use, and your family members should all have proper standard accounts secured with passwords. But, if you have a temporary house guest, or simply need to let someone access your computer to use the Internet, then they can use the guest account. In the end, you shouldn’t leave the guest account enabled, so remember to turn it off if you don’t need it.
For a more thorough discussion of all things Windows-accounts-related, we recommend you check out this great article, which discusses user accounts and groups.
Tying Accounts to Parental Controls
Before we talk about Windows 7’s parental controls, we need to explain how to assign accounts so that they work with them.
Begin by opening Parental Controls from the Control Panel. In this screenshot, you see that when you open it, your accounts are displayed. You may have many more accounts, perhaps one for each family member. It’s important that you make changes to other accounts using an administrator account.
If you try to do so using a standard account, you’ll be nagged to enter an administrator password each time you want to do anything meaningful. It’s no big deal, but it can be a pain after a while so it’s just easier to do all this as an administrator.
The Parental Controls Included with Windows 7
In Windows 7, when you open the Parental Controls from the Control Panel, you’ll see a list of your accounts. We choose our standard user on our Windows 7 machine and the User Controls screen opens.
The first thing you should do is actually turn on the parental controls, which will allow you to then set up restrictions for games and apps, as well as impose time limits on system use.
If you don’t care about what they look at on the web or you have other means of controlling web access, then this might be enough for you. Alternatively, you could disable the web browser using the “allow and block specific programs” option, but that seems somewhat extreme since most kids use the Internet to conduct research for their academic studies.
The best option outside of installing Family Safety, is to use a monitoring option such as OpenDNS.
Imposing Time Limits on Computer Use
Time limits are great because a chief complaint of many parents is that their kids are always on their computers, sometimes to the detriment of their grades, family relations, and social circles. Regardless, if you want to scale back computer access to any user on your system, time limits are a great way to accomplish that.
Setting up time limits is extremely simple. Choose blocks of time during which you want to prevent access. For example, in the previous screenshot, we are allowing access during school days and nights, but we will let them play on the computer for a few extra hours on Friday and Saturday nights.
Of course, the time restrictions you implement will depend on your situation and user’s needs but it’s great that you can have this kind of control if necessary. Note, you can only restrict use in hour increments on Windows 7 (on Windows 8.1, you can set up access to half-hour increments).
Game Controls Let You Restrict Gaming
If you have young ones who like video games, it can be difficult to know what they’re playing. A great many games these days are full of violence, profanity, and sexual content which, in a lot of cases, is extremely realistic and graphic.
You can mitigate much of this risk by implementing game controls. Game controls depend upon ratings to work, so if someone tries to install and play a game that isn’t appropriate to your settings, they’re out of luck.
To set the game ratings level, click “set game ratings” and you can choose how strict or loose the restrictions are.
By default, you do this according to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board’s (ESRB) ratings, though you can choose a different ratings system if you prefer. Note, you can also block games that have no rating, which is nice because obviously if a game doesn’t have a rating, it could contain any kind of content.
You can also click “block or allow specific games” for games that you want to override the ratings system you’ve implemented. In the screenshot below, you see you can leave a game to adhere to its rating, or explicitly block or allow specific titles.
Even if you don’t care so much what your older children play, game controls are still a great way to curtail game playing if it’s becoming an issue, like if homework and chores aren’t getting done. You can block those games without having to completely block computer use, which is an effective compromise because homework is often dependent upon Google and Wikipedia.
Setting Restrictions on Unwanted Applications
Finally, Windows 7 will let you limit programs to assigned users, so you can control or flat out stop unauthorized application use, such as the aforementioned web browser block, or block all applications except Word and Chrome, so the focus is on research and writing.
Applying application restrictions is easy enough. Simply enable the option and then select the programs you want to explicitly allow. Once you’re finished, click “OK” and you’ll be returned to the Parental Controls settings screen where you can then review your actions.
The main Parental Controls users screen will now reflect your changes. You now see that user “Matt” is a standard user with parental controls on, has no password set, time and program limits are enabled, and game ratings are set to “Everyone 10+”.
Speaking of Passwords
We like to harp on this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t remind you that it’s a wise idea to have passwords on all your accounts, even those used by your kids. That standard user “Matt” has no password should be be a big no-no.
How or if you implement a password policy is completely up to you, just remember, if you have a poorly-secured admin account, anyone who accesses that account can change or remove passwords, alter your settings, and install anything they want.
As far as the kids are concerned, passwords are important to not only protect their files, but instill good security habits. Take a moment to check out this article on securing user accounts and passwords in Windows if you want to learn more.
Stick with it, or Upgrade
Compared to many popular parental controls packages available nowadays, the ones on Windows 7 are admittedly Spartan, but they get the job done, especially if your requirements are basic, or you use them in tandem with your router’s security features, or with OpenDNS.
If you do require something with more powerful features, then you’ll want to use the downloadable Family Safety package, which probably begs the question, why not just use Family Safety in the first place?
For one, the parental controls in Windows 7 are local, so you don’t have to use a web browser to implement them. Family Safety defers to an online interface, which requires an Internet connection to view reports and stats, change settings, add users, and more. Also, for many users, Family Safety might be a little overkill, so Windows 7’s parental controls may be sufficient.
If you use or are planning to install Windows 8.1 (or the upcoming Windows 10), then you have no choice, Family Safety is standard. This isn’t a bad thing, Family Safety is actually a really effective product. Unfortunately, it is a subject in and of itself and best left for an upcoming article.
In the meantime, we’d like to continue to hear from you on your thoughts and feelings on how to best safeguard your family. Please click over to our discussion forum and feel free to leave a comment.