How to Use Parental Controls in OS X to Protect Your Kids

Parental controls are great once you set them up and use them. Busy parents get to breathe a bit easier, and as long as they stay on top of things, even basic parental controls such as those found in OS X, should be more than adequate.

Discussing parental controls on How-to Geek is nothing new. We’ve covered the native controls found in Windows 7 as well as the full Family Safety package that comes with Windows 8.1. We’ve shown you how to exploit features found in your wireless router for the most rudimentary parental controls, as well as how to add OpenDNS to the mix for more powerful web filtering.

Now, it’s Apple’s turn. After giving OS X’s parental controls a spin, we can safely say that it’s got almost everything you could ever need to keep your kids out of most trouble. As usual, if you add OpenDNS as a web filtering solution, you can probably feel pretty good about the steps you’ve taken. And again, if you stay on top of things by monitoring the logs (we’ll talk more about those in a bit), then you can react to issues before they actually become problems.

RELATED: Using Your Router for (Very) Basic Home Network Family Safety

To initially set up parental controls on OS X, you can open the system preferences and create a new user from there. You’ll need to first click the lock icon to make any changes, and then click the plus sign “+” right above the lock. Fill out the user’s full name, account name, give them a password (it should never and cannot be blank), and a password hint (if needed), and then click “Create Account.”

You can create a new parental controls account from the User & Groups preferences as well. Just choose “Managed with Parental Controls” from the New Account choices, full name, account name, and password, then click “Create User.”

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Note the options on the user’s account page. You most definitely want to make sure “Enable parental controls” is checked, and “Allow user to administer this computer” is not.

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Open parental controls to see your options. Mac OS X gives you controls under five categories: Apps, Web, People, Time Limits, and Other controls.

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From the outset, you can restrict users to what applications they use as well as whether or not they use the Simple Finder.

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The Simple Finder, as we see in the following screenshot, is a really stripped down version of the basic OS X desktop. It’s mostly intended for young or experienced users. For example, the Applications folder view has been grouped into pages and apps are actually aliases, meaning young ones have no access to the actual application files.

Limiting applications is fairly straightforward. When selected, you can choose from four categories: App Store, Other Apps, Widgets, and Utilities. If you allow apps store apps, you can decide the age rating, from All to up to ages 4+ to 17+.

Selecting “Prevent the Dock from being modified” will lock the Dock with the apps and shortcuts you choose. Once set, you can turn this option on and the user will not be able to make any further changes to the Dock. This is a good option for young users who might accidentally delete a shortcut to their favorite game or application and not know how to get it back.

If you click the “Web” tab, you can implement website restrictions, which consist of absolute unrestricted access to all of the Internet’s wonders, attempt to limit adult websites automatically, or you can allow access to specific websites that you choose.

Note, with the second option,  you can blacklist and whitelist addresses, so as you can see in the following example, you can always or never allow websites by simply clicking the “+” at the bottom. If you decide you need to remove a website from a list, select it and click the “-” button.

If a young user comes across a website that’s blocked, they’ll see a message like this. You can use your powerful administrator powers to step in and add the website, if you decide at that point it’s okay. Otherwise, the user will have to go elsewhere.

The People tab concerns itself primarily with the Game Center and allowed contacts. You can allow or disallow your kids from joining multiplayer games or adding Game Center friends. There are also limits to how restricted users can use Messages and Mail. For example, if you want to limit to whom your kids can email, you “Limit Mail to allowed contacts.” Similarly, you can limit Messages to allowed contacts as well.

The Time Limits options should be pretty familiar to anyone who’s used parental controls in another operating system. If you want to limit computer use on weekdays or weekends, you can decide how long. This is pretty basic, you can’t set when they use the computer, rather just the amount of time (from 30 minutes to 8 hours).

If your kids have a curfew, then you can turn on the Bedtime feature, which will lock users out of the computer for a chosen duration, this feature includes separate choices for school nights (Sunday to Thursday) and weekends (Friday and Saturday).

Finally, there’s the Other tab. There’s quite a few very useful checkboxes here. Of note, there’s the option to disable the built-in camera, which is often a concern to many parents. You can also hide profane words in the Dictionary and disable password changes.

That is basically it for the parental controls in OS X, however, it’s not the end of your role. It still behooves you to check the logs, which can be accessed by clicking the “Logs…” button at the bottom of any Parental Controls tab.

Look to the Logs!

We can’t end our discussion of OS X’s parental controls without talking about the logs because out of everything found in the Parental Controls system preferences, logs are going to be a parent’s most powerful tool in combatting bad behavior.

When you click on the “Logs…” button, which can be accessed from any tab in Parental Controls, you can view what websites have been visited, websites that have been blocked (either explicitly or through OS X’s filters), applications that have been accessed, and Messages activity.You can sort activity from that current day, the past week, month, three months, six months, year, or since the beginning of time (All).

You are also able to sort informations by date or category. So if you’re looking at the applications logs, you can sort by application, messages can be sorted by contact, and so on. If you find nothing that concerns you, you can click the “Clear Log” button for a fresh start. Also, though they’re grayed out in the above screenshot, there are options to Open a website or application (so as to check it out before making a decision) and Block offending content and such.

A Note on Web Filtering

As long as we have you here, let’s talk briefly about web filtering because even though OS X offers some automatic filtering of so-called adult sites, and you can obviously blacklist or whitelist, bad or good sites, respectively, we found that many adult-themed sites still made it through.

It’s for this reason that we must once again recommend using some kind of dedicated web filtering service such as OpenDNS. Basically, if you’re unfamiliar with it, OpenDNS parental controls will route all web traffic through their domain name servers. You can set the strictness of the filtering to your liking or choose different categories for a more customized approach.

RELATED: How to Use OpenDNS on Your Router, PC, Tablet, or Smartphone

Once you’ve created an OpenDNS account to capture traffic from your IP address, you can decide whether you want to filter traffic from the router, and thus any traffic inside your home network, or from the individual client (PC, Mac, iPhone, etc.). It’s a great solution because it augments a fairly solid set of parental controls with a complete set of web filters, meaning you can breathe a little easier.

In the end, we hope you find a happy median between your parenting style and your kid’s computing needs. Implementing parental controls doesn’t have to be difficult and, in fact, as we’ve demonstrated repeatedly, regardless of platform, it’s really quite easy.

That said, perhaps you’ve got a a different opinion, or maybe you don’t use OS X’s parental controls at all. Regardless, we’d like to hear from you and always encourage feedback, especially on the subject of parental controls. Please leave us your comments and questions in our discussion forum. We look forward to hearing from you!

Matt Klein is an aspiring Florida beach bum, displaced honorary Texan, and dyed-in-wool Ohio State Buckeye, who fancies himself a nerd-of-all-trades. His favorite topics might include operating systems, BBQ, roller skating, and trying to figure out how to explain quantum computers.