Providing children with access to a computer and the internet is increasingly important, but so is protecting them. Setting boundaries and fostering a healthy relationship with technology can seem tough, but macOS has built-in parental controls that can help.
Create Your Child’s User Account
Your child might share a computer with the rest of the family, or he might have a Mac of his own in his room. To set rules, you can create a dedicated user account for your child.
If multiple children will use the Mac you’re setting up, you should create separate user accounts for each of them. You can configure separate permissions and layers of control for each of these accounts. With their own account, each child has their own disk space for documents, photos, and other files.
Even if your child has her own computer, you should be the only person with administrator access. The administrator account is the one you create when you boot the Mac for the first time. It gives you unhindered access to the full suite of functions.
The best way to do this is to set up the Mac yourself. The first time you turn on the computer, go through the setup process as if it were your own. Make sure you set a secure administrator account password your child won’t guess.
When your new Mac is set up and ready to go, it’s time to create an account for your child:
- Head to System Preferences > Users and Groups and click the Padlock button. Authenticate with your password, Apple Watch, or Touch ID.
- Click the plus sign (+) to create a new account.
- Select “Standard” from the “New Account” drop-down menu.
- Type the requested account information, and then click “Create User.”
Remember that choosing the right account type helps immensely because only administrator accounts can install applications. This is important since Apple’s parental controls work on a per-app basis. If your child can install apps directly, he might install a browser that bypasses the restrictions you’ve put in place.
After you create the appropriate user account, it’s time to apply Apple’s parental controls.
Use Screen Time to Enforce Parental Controls
In macOS Mojave (10.14) and earlier, “Parental Controls” was a separate section under “System Preferences.” As of macOS Catalina (10.15), though, you set up parental controls via “Screen Time” under “System Preferences,” instead. To find out which version of macOS your computer is running, click the Apple logo, and then select “About This Mac.”
In this article, we focus on macOS Catalina and later, so just keep this in mind if you’re following along on an older version.
The first thing you need to do is log out of your administrator account, and then log in to the new child account you just created. After you do this, launch System Preferences > Screen Time and toggle-On this feature in the Options menu.
Click the checkbox next to “Use Screen Time Passcode” to enable it, and then type a unique, four-digit passcode your child won’t be able to guess (make sure it’s something you won’t forget, though).
Now use the remaining options to set limits on apps, content type, and overall computer usage. Don’t forget to do this for each user account; log in and adjust permissions for each as you see fit.
The Downtime option allows you to lock the Mac at certain times each day. During Downtime, anyone who uses the computer can only access the apps you whitelist. If you’re concerned about your children using their computer when they should be asleep, Downtime is the tool for you.
To enable the feature, click “Turn On.” Next, you can either click the “Every Day” option or “Custom” to build your own schedule. A custom schedule is perfect if you’re okay with your child using the computer more on weekends.
If you disable “Block at Downtime,” your child can ignore the time limit for the day. This makes “Screen Time” more of an advisory tool than a true parental control, though—if you want to block apps properly, leave this enabled.
If you don’t want your child to use a particular app or service too much, the “App Limits” option can give you some peace of mind. This feature limits app usage to a certain number of minutes per day. The timers reset at midnight.
In the “App Limits” menu, click the plus sign (+) to add the app you want to limit. You can also select entire categories of apps, like “Games” or “Social Networking.” If you prefer, though, you can select the specific apps (like Safari or Fortnite) you want to limit. Set a time or a schedule, click the checkbox next to the “Block at End of Limit” option to disable the app when time is up, and then click “Done.”
Unfortunately, macOS doesn’t differentiate between an app someone is using, and one that’s just open in the background. For example, if you limit Safari to two hours per day, and your child is writing an assignment while doing research on the web, macOS will still limit Safari to those two hours, regardless of how much time your child actually spent browsing.
This isn’t a problem for other apps, like games, but you might want to think twice about limiting core services, like Safari or Messages.
In the “Always Allowed” section, you can whitelist any apps your child can access at any time. These apps will continue to work after “Downtime” begins.
If you want to block everything and set up a whitelist of apps, enable the option to block “All Apps and Categories” in “App Limits,” and then add each app under “Always Allowed.”
Content and Privacy
The “Content and Privacy” menu is where you can really restrict what your child can see and do on a Mac. Click “Turn On” to enable this feature, and then browse through each section.
In the “Content” section, you can restrict web content, explicit language, and multiplayer games. If you want to limit web content, you can choose “Unrestricted Access,” “Limit Adult Websites” (which applies Apple’s content filter), or the nuclear option, “Allowed Websites Only” (which blocks everything except the apps you whitelist).
“Stores” is mostly for people using iOS because “standard” Mac accounts can’t install software, anyway. This section affects which apps, movies, TV shows, books, music, podcasts, and news appear in search results.
If you want to limit access to the Mac’s “Camera,” “Siri & Dictation,” or the “Books Store,” click the “Apps” tab.
If you don’t limit Siri, your child can use it to make web requests and circumvent some of your other rules. The options under “Other” only affect iOS.
Test Your Rules
With your new rules in place, it’s time to test them. Try to watch an age-restricted video on YouTube or use an app you blocked. Ask Siri to fetch some information for you from the web.
Run through the list of available apps in your “Applications” folder and make sure you’re happy with it. If you installed a second browser, like Firefox or Chrome, don’t forget to impose the same limits on those that you did on Safari.
If the Mac is shared or there are other computers on the network, make sure any shared content in Music or TV libraries is appropriate for everyone. To do this, launch the Music and TV apps, and then click the drop-down arrow next to “Library” in the sidebar, as shown below.
Remember to test each supervised account you created. You can review your settings occasionally and relax any restrictions that prove to be too extreme or a hassle. As your child gets older, you can increase the age restrictions so he can access age-appropriate content. The ultimate goal is to foster a healthy relationship between your child and the technology he uses every day.
Remember, Kids Are Smart
Your children will likely look for ways to circumvent the restrictions you impose. When I was a kid, we used purpose-built tools to remove all the restrictions on school computers. We found ways to access the file system, play games over the network, and hide our tracks so we wouldn’t get caught.
Computers and software have advanced considerably since I was in school. However, the inquisitive nature of children will never change. Luckily, due to the way “Standard” accounts work on macOS, many tricks (like changing the time zone to circumvent “Downtime”) are off-limits.
So, @Apple’s screen time passcode can be bypassed. My son just disabled the restrictions I added by using an app called PIN Finder, which returned my pin after scanning his backup.
DO NOT trust Screen Time restrictions.
PS: I’m mad, but I’m also proud.
— Nando Vieira (@fnando) May 17, 2019
By far, the biggest threat to your new parental controls is your own security practices. If your child can guess your “Screen Time” passcode or administrator account password, she can sidestep all your rules. It’s a good idea to change your passcode and password frequently. This will also teach your child good security practices.
There are tools out there that are designed to remove restrictions on macOS, and your child might try to find them. There’s not a lot you can do about these except wait for Apple to patch the latest round of exploits.
The best way to combat this is by giving your child minimal reasons to beat the restrictions. Install child-friendly software and games, like Minecraft, that encourage learning and cooperation through play. Listen to any complaints your child raises and try to rationalize your decision.
Sometimes, you might find a compromise (an extra hour on the weekend, for example) is all it takes.