As a parent, you have plenty to worry about; what your kids are doing on their computers shouldn’t be one of them. Today, well show you how to lock down your curiosity-prone kids and really take control of your home network with Microsoft Family Safety.
Family Safety imbues your Windows account with a veritable cornucopia of monitoring and filtering tools that allow you to put up a virtual wall that you can exploit to monitor and filter app, game, and web activity. In other words, you are the boss.
The only drawback is you have to be using Windows, which is okay because Windows 7 and Windows 8.x are installed on over half of all personal computers. That translates to a lot of parents, and a lot of kids getting away with who knows what.
The Family Safety parental controls suite is comprehensive, and it works very well because Microsoft has had plenty of time to get things right. It ticks off all the boxes on the parental controls wishlist and, best of all, it’s completely free to use. You can use it with any computer running an appropriate version of Windows.
Microsoft Family Safety hooks directly into the Parental Controls and Family Safety control panels on Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, respectively. We hope that if you’re a parent and your kids are using Windows-based PCs, by the time you finish you’ll probably wonder how you ever got along without it.
What You Can Do with Family Safety
Family Safety adds a ton of functionality to the parental controls Windows 7 originally introduced, as the screenshot below demonstrates.
In addition to game and application blocking, and curfews, Family Safety adds robust activity monitoring and reporting, time limits, web filtering, Windows Store app restrictions (Windows 8.1 only), and the ability to attend to special requests, such as if the restricted user wants to use the computer beyond curfew, or access an app that is blocked.
Installing Family Safety on Windows 7
As nice as it is to have integrated parental controls, Windows 7 could do to have a lot more, such as those that are included in Windows 8.1.
Luckily, all you have to do is download Windows Essentials from Microsoft and install the Family Safety package, which will give you practically all those controls!
When you run the Windows Essentials executable, you can install everything included or you can pick the programs you want to install.
We’re not going to install everything, so we’ll choose that option and select “Family Safety” from the list and then click “Install.”
Once Windows Essentials is installed, click “Close” and then open the Control Panel.
When you now open Parental Controls, it will open the Windows Essentials end user license agreement, which can read through (if you want) and then click “Agree” when you’re ready to proceed.
Okay, so now we can sign into Family Safety with our Microsoft account.
Once signed in, you’re ready to roll. If you don’t have a Microsoft account, then you will need to click “sign up.”
What’s Microsoft account? It allows you to access various Microsoft services, such as Word, Excel, OneDrive, and more. If you’re a Windows user, we definitely recommend you have a Microsoft account so you can access and use their services, but if you plan on using Family Safety, then you have to have one.
Most Windows 8.1 users will probably already be well acquainted with Microsoft accounts, and we’ve covered them previously. If you already have a Microsoft account, you can sign into Family Safety and if you do not have one, you can create one in a few minutes.
Note, you can use any e-mail address you want, so if you prefer Gmail or Yahoo! Mail, you can use that or you can invent a new Hotmail or Outlook.com e-mail account.
Once you’re signed into Family Safety, you will want to choose which account or accounts you want to monitor. In this case, we choose the account we had previously applied parental controls to and then click “Next.”
The next step is to match your Windows account with a Family Safety member or add the account to it. In this case, we’ve already previously set up a Family Safety member “Kid Geek” with a Microsoft account. We assign our Windows 7 account “Matt,” which will override any controls we set in the previous section.
Now, whatever changes we make on the Family Safety website to Kid Geek will be applied to the Matt account on our Windows 7 client.
Remember, your Windows 7 parental controls will no longer be locally controlled. From now on you will need to sign into and use the Family Safety website. If you do not want this arrangement, you will need to uninstall Family Safety to revert to Windows 7’s baked-in parental controls.
At this point, you’re ready to begin setting up parental controls using Microsoft Family Safety. Click the link next to “go to the Family Safety website” and log in with your Microsoft account username and password.
Each time you want to use Family Safety, you can go directly to it using the browser, or you can launch it from the Control Panel.
If you want to use a different browser, you’re not limited to only Internet Explorer. As much as Microsoft would like you to use their browser for everything, The Family safety website will work perfectly well with other popular browsers such as Chrome, Opera, and Firefox.
User Accounts in Brief
Windows 7 provides two main account types, administrator and standard accounts. We talked about this to some extent when we covered Windows 7 parental controls.
Administrator and standard privileges are still relevant in Windows 8.1, but the system now allows you to set up your account as a Microsoft account, which is a roaming account that can be synced between disparate Windows 8.1 computers, or a local account, where everything is isolated to the machine you’re using.
Beyond this, Microsoft has included a new child’s account in Windows 8.1, which is basically a standard account that is automatically assigned to use Family Safety. Child’s accounts can be local or Microsoft accounts, the most important aspect of them is that they are standard and have no administrator rights, so the user can’t change settings or install applications without an admin password.
Remember, you can either create a child’s account with an e-mail address (Microsoft) or without (local). In the following screenshot, we see the account management screen in Windows 8.1’s PC Settings. If you have other accounts that you want to convert to a child’s account, click “Edit.”
As we mentioned, simply designating an account as a child’s account will automatically turn Family Safety on for it.
Also, you do not have to create special parental controls for each child’s account, you can simply add accounts for each younger user and then link them all under the same settings.
The Family Safety Website In-Depth
Family Safety’s parental controls begin on your computer but, your computer is only a means to the Family Safety website.
The Family Safety Home Screen
Upon logging in, the first screen divides users into parents and kids on the left side, and devices that your Family Safety account is managing. Remember the primary parent account is tied to you, the administrator, and as such, you wield tremendous power over what other users can do on their computers.
That said, let us reiterate that if anyone else has administrative privileges, then they can easily get around any restrictions and monitoring you put in place.
You can remove devices by clicking the “Remove” link underneath.
If you have kids of varying ages, you can give them all their own accounts, which means you will have to create and monitor each account separately. On the other hand, if you have kids who’re more or less in the same age range, you can combine them under one umbrella account.
Remember that account we added earlier to “Kid Geek” in Windows 7? In this example, you can see how this works. Not only is Kid Geek a member of this account but so is Matt, so both will adhere to the same rules you assign.
Adding Parents to Family Safety
If you click the “Add a Parent” link, you can add another parent so they will be able to monitor activity, attend to requests, and change settings.
A box will pop up. Enter the new parent’s e-mail address and click “send request.” The parent will have to then confirm before they can be added to the parents list.
Change Xbox Settings
This is not directly tied to game restrictions, however, Xbox settings are very much gamer-related. The gist is that you can add people to your “Xbox family” and change the privacy and safety settings for each.
What this essentially amounts to is the same kind of controls you might find on Facebook or Twitter. You can change your password, gamertag, contact preferences, or as you can see in the preceding screenshot, affect privacy and online safety.
Add and Monitor Windows Phones
You cannot use iPhone or Android device with Family Safety, and there’s not too many people who use Windows Phones. This exposes Family Safety’s glaring weakness: it doesn’t cover that “mobile gap” so you have to use another means to monitor your children’s phones and tablets (when they leave the safety of your home network).
That said, if you have kids who do use Windows Phone, you can easily add them to Family Safety. For everything else, you can check with your mobile data carrier. All four major mobile carriers (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint) have varying degree of parental controls they offer. Some are included with your plan, while others may charge a nominal fee for added protection.
If your children do use an iPhone, iPad, or Android device, to access the Internet at home, you can set up OpenDNS to track and control their activities.
Linking Family Members
If you have a child with multiple user accounts, you can easily combine them with the “link family members” feature. This is somewhat similar to what we did in the previous lesson when we added our Windows 7 user account “Matt” to our Family Safety account “Kid Geek.”
Let’s take a look at the Family Safety user overview section and then break it down into its component parts.
You’ll notice all your settings for the chosen child are arrayed in an easy list. Let’s go through each one and explore further so you can see the power the Family Safety offers.
Activity reporting lets you view the websites your kids visit, games played, and all the time they’re spending on the PC.
The summary view shows you an abundant amount of information.
You can see a web activity for the most popular websites visited, suspicious and blocked pages, searches, PC activity (time spent on the computer), most used apps and games, Windows Store app usage (if applicable), and finally notifications.
This is just a summary, to really dig into the data and even respond to potential problems, you need to check out web and PC activity.
The Web Activity summary lets you see what’s going on when your kids surf the Internet. You’ll see a list sites visited, action taken, the category the website falls into, when it was last accessed, number of visits, and the ability to change the access setting: block or allow.
Note that there’s a couple key ways you can cut through all this information so you don’t feel overwhelmed. First, you can limit the date range so that if there’s only a day or two of activity you want to view. Also, click the little arrow next to a site, and you can see all the subdomains for a particular web address.
Finally, you can filter results. Click the filter icon at the top of a column and you’re given even more options to drill through information.
You’ll probably spend the most time poring through this information because a lot of parents want to know exactly what they’re kids are doing on the Internet. By giving you a clear interface and presenting this data in simple columns, you can view, monitor, and take quick action where needed.
With PC Activity, you can view app use, whether the app is allowed or blocked, how long it was used, and when they were last used.
It will also report app activity, the action taken (allowed or blocked), how long each app is used, and when it was last used.
Then finally, you can view file downloads (so you know what your kids are downloading if they’re allowed to download), Windows Store downloads (if you’re using Windows 8.1), and Family Safety Filter activity.
There’s so much information here, you can really dig in and get a clear idea of exactly what’s going on with your client computers and use. Again, by restraining the date range, you can zero in on specific timeframes you want to examine.
Activity reports can be delivered directly to your e-mail inbox (or not) so you can read summaries of what’s going on with your Family Safety users. If you want to get reports for website request, you can subscribe to them.
You can choose between getting request immediately, as they happen, daily, or simply letting you attend to them when you log into your account (off).
You can also opt-in to have activity reports for each selected family member on a weekly basis.
In order to set these reporting functions, you will need to return to the initial screen you saw when you first logged in. Choose the parent account, and then you’ll see the frequency options in the Overview.
While you can see what your kid’s are doing on the Internet by looking at their activity reports, you can influence what they do using the web filtering tools.
The Restriction Level settings allow you to go from off, to simple warnings when your kids visit adult website, all the way up to only allowing website that you specify.
Note, at the bottom of this page is a checkbox where you can choose whether to allow or block file downloads. This is a pretty powerful feature so pause a moment or two before deciding. File downloads are a primary vector for computer infections, so if you have concerns about that, or you simply want to prevent them from retrieving adult or pirated material, this is the option to implement.
You know how we said you can set your filtering level to allowed sites only? This is accomplished using the “web filtering sites” option.
The way this usually works is, if you have your filtering level set particularly high, and your kids are having trouble reaching sites that you deem okay, then you can specifically allow them. On the other hand, if your filtering level is somewhat liberal, but you’re just absolutely opposed to Facebook or Twitter, you can then specifically block those sites.
These lists can take time, and while you may be tempted to set a level and forget it, there are going to be exceptions to everything. In the end, it’s important to examine the activity logs as well as attend to website requests.
Parents always fret about the time their kids spend on their devices. Phones, tablets, and computers are notable for turning kids into zombies. That’s why time limits are a great way to forcibly steer their attention away from their computers.
The first option is to set allowances. This means that kid are allotted time, a certain number of hours (you can go as low as 30 minutes) that they can use the computer. Once their time is up, the computer locks them out.
Note, this feature is only available if you’re using some version of Windows 8. Windows 7 machines do not have this feature. That’s okay though because you can still set curfews, which are just as useful.
When you set curfew hours, you specify the hours of the day your kids can use the computer. Don’t want them messing around on YouTube while they’re getting ready for school? Or, maybe you just want the family to sit down and enjoy a meal together. Whatever the case, just darken the times you want to block off and you’re done.
We should note that, Windows 7 only allow you to block time off in 1-hour intervals. On Windows 8.1 machines, you can set them to 30-minute intervals.
Apps are a big part of using a computer. Whether it’s a browser, or media player, or a word processor, a computer is still hands down the best way to get stuff done. But you don’t want your kids to be able to use any old app. Using app restrictions you can easily allow or block any and all (if you really wanted) apps on your computer you deem unfit for kid use.
If you want to simply hone in on one app, you can search for it, which sure saves time if you have a ton of apps on your system and you’re just looking for one or two to block.
Game Restrictions are really going to be far more relevant if your kids play them. Otherwise, this is something you won’t have to really deal with. If your kids do play games, then this is right up your alley.
The first way to restricting games is to set a rating level. Similar to web filtering, Game Ratings will block games you don’t want your kids to play, which is based on the ratings system you select. For folks living in the United States for example, the default ratings system is the Entertainment Software Review Board (ESRB).
You can set the level from early childhood all the way up to mature and adult titles.
If you live outside the US or want to use a different ratings system, Family Safety will let you select a different one.
Note, at the bottom of the rating level is the option to allow unrated games. We recommend you leave this unchecked.
If there is an unrated game, or any other game that your kid really wants to play, but the ratings level is cramping their fragging ways, you can specifically allow titles with the game list options.
You’re given three choices here, you can have the game use the rating system, and you can outright block or allow titles. Similar to web filtering, there will always be exceptions, which is why it is nice to have this power.
Finally, we come to requests, which lets your kids interact indirectly with you by sending you special requests. In the following screenshot, you see Kid Geek has sent several app requests, which you can examine and either allow or ignore.
By ignoring a request, the app will continue to remain blocked, and they will have to request to use it again. When you kids use their accounts, they’ll see a notification such as the one we see below in Windows 8.1.
Click on the notification, they’ll have the chance to send a permission request, or if you’re close by they can select “My parent is here,” which will open a new screen where you will need to input your password.
Just be careful here with your password, we know it goes without saying but be discrete and protect your password typing from prying eyes!
As you can see, Microsoft’s Family Safety is well-suited as a no-nonsense, hassle-free parental controls for your Windows-based computers. It’s got it all and makes short work of what might otherwise seem an impossible task, at least at home.
Of course, you may not have a network solely dedicated to Windows PCs. You might have Android tablets or iPads, maybe an iMac, in which case you can adopt further measures, such as using security tools incorporated into your router, or implementing a filtering service such as OpenDNS. Obviously, if you do have an OS X client, you can use its parental controls, which we’ll cover in an upcoming feature.
In the meantime, we hope you’ll continue to share your thoughts on parental controls on our discussion forum.