Beyond Parental Controls

Configured correctly, Parental Controls are remarkably effective. But you may want to do more. Your next steps depend on how strict you want to be and how much you trust your children. Beyond talking to them, there are several ways to allow them access to the online world while retaining some control.

Keep an Eye Out

Even if you trust your children, you might feel better if you can track their activities (and, even better, if you tell them you're doing so). Parental Controls' logs provide some monitoring options, but you can take this even further.

If you and your child have separate Macs, you can watch his screen via Leopard's Screen Sharing feature. First log on to his Mac as an administrator and switch on Screen Sharing in the Sharing preference pane. In Allow Access For, select Only These Users, click on the plus-sign button, and choose Administrators.

To observe, go back to your Mac and, from the Finder, choose Go: Network. Locate the name of your kid's Mac, launch it, and click on Share Screen. You can now see what he's doing on his machine--and even control it. Your child can try to cut you off (by choosing Disconnect, and then your Mac's IP address, from the Screen Sharing menu in the menu bar), but you'll still remain connected.

If your family shares a single Mac, SpectorSoft's US$150 Spector for Mac OS takes frequent snapshots of the screen and can log keystrokes without your children's knowledge. When you want to see what your kids were doing while using the computer, launch the program, play back the snapshots as a movie, or look at the keystroke log.

Stop File Sharing

For kids, it may be hard to resist the appeal of downloading free music and videos (and just as hard to understand the legal issues). But if you'd rather not have the recording industry's lawyers banging on your door, you'll want to put an end to any peer-to-peer file-sharing. Leopard's firewall can help.ContentBarrier X4 can block all streaming content in your kids' Web browser.

Open the Security preference pane, click on the Firewall tab, and select the Allow Only Essential Services option. This will also disable screen sharing, file sharing, and other such services. If that's too limiting, choose Set Access For Specific Services And Applications instead, which keeps all enabled sharing services running. If you're concerned that your kids are doing illegal swapping, tell the firewall to block incoming connections from any file-sharing programs on the Mac (click on the plus sign to add the program, and from the pull-down menu to the right, select Block Incoming Connections). Better yet, remove those programs altogether.

Some BitTorrent clients use port forwarding to work around the firewall, which means you can't stop downloads, no matter which firewall setting you choose. To see whether your kids have been downloading files using a BitTorrent client, click on the Advanced button at the bottom of the Security window and check the Enable Firewall Logging option. Select the Open Log button to view a list of activities. If you see entries for BitTorrent clients (such as Transmission, Azureus, or BitTorrent), you can uninstall them.

Users who are savvy about security may find it frustrating that Leopard's firewall doesn't provide an easy way to open or close specific ports. Hanynet's free NoobProof offers a simple interface for opening and closing ports within Leopard's firewall.

Limit Content

Leopard's Internet controls for parents are a vast improvement over earlier offerings, but they still may not fully meet your needs. With the help of robust filtering utilities and Web services, you can gain more control.

All-in-One If you're looking for comprehensive control over your kids' Mac activities, check out Intego's $50 ContentBarrier X4, which can halt or filter a number of activities for each account on your Mac (including those already restricted by Parental Controls).

For instance, you can forbid access to questionable Web sites, block streaming content, filter e-mail and chats for inappropriate language, and block peer-to-peer file sharing and newsgroup access. ContentBarrier can also keep a log of your kids' activities and e-mail it to you as often as once an hour. The program is great if you haven't upgraded to Leopard, or if you find that Leopard's Parental Controls don't provide enough control over certain activities.

Web Filters Are you primarily concerned about your kids' Web surfing habits? Several services can shield children from objectionable content. Blue Coat's free K9 Web Protection service creates an Internet proxy on your Mac to filter and block inappropriate Web sites (as of press time, only a beta version for Mac OS X was available). The service sorts sites by category, such as pornography, illegal drugs, social networking, and gaming. You can instruct the filter to block certain categories while ignoring others. You can still allow or bar specific sites.

Google is a terrific resource, but even if you turn on its filtering features, it's easy to get lost in all the search results--and distinguishing bad information from good is difficult even for adults. For $5 a month or $50 a year, Thinkronize's netTrekker home acts as a search portal, directing kids to teacher-approved Web sites that contain the knowledge they need to complete their schoolwork.

These filters promise to protect kids from unseemly content. How effective are they? To find out, I put propriety aside and went spelunking in the darker corners of the Web.

I started by searching for every naughty word I could think of. Combined with Google's filtering powers, OS X's Parental Controls' Web-site filtering option largely thwarted my Web searches. The scientific names for body parts and sexual acts turned up appropriately clinical results without sleaze. Coarser words produced an "Oops! You Can't See Pages on This Website" message. And Parental Controls' logs enumerated my every search. I was, however, able to sneak past Parental Controls when I plugged in some innocent-sounding adult Web sites.

I had mixed results with third-party programs and services that filter content. The best was Blue Coat's K9 Web Protection service. It blocked any adult sites I attempted to visit. Intego's ContentBarrier X4 startled me more than once with its loud buzzing alarm when I attempted to access verboten URLs. Like Parental Controls, though, it didn't block innocent-sounding test Web sites. I was, however, able to add these sites to the program's block list.

Augmenting the Age of Innocence

The Mac is a wonderful resource for children: not only is it an expansive educational resource, but it's also an art and movie studio, a killer jukebox, and a sophisticated communications device. Sure, all that power can become a problem if left in inexperienced, unguided hands. But with these tips and the proper parental oversight, you can control the Mac's power so that it enhances your children's growth and development.

Kid-Friendly Add-Ons

A Mac can do wonders for kids. With the following additions, you can enhance the experience even more.

Scribble Pads Wacom's $99 Bamboo Fun small tablet includes an easy-to-grip stylus and copies of Adobe Photoshop Elements and Corel Painter Essentials. If those are too advanced, try Software MacKiev's $40 KidPix Deluxe 3X, Ambient Design's $25 ArtRage, or plasq's $25 Doozla.

Easy Snapper Fisher-Price's $50 Kid-Tough Digital Camera has a built-in flash, stores up to 60 640-by-480-pixel images (it also has an SD memory card slot), and is packed in a case sturdy enough to withstand playground drops; it's a great gateway into photography for kids three and up.

Protective Armor Children under the age of nine have a supernatural knack for getting jam and crumbs into every nook and cranny. Get a screen-cleaning system, such as RadTech's $7 to $15 OmniCleanz or Meridrew Enterprises' $25 iKlear Apple Polish Cleaning Kit. To protect your keyboard, consider a plastic overlay from iSkin or zCover.

[Christopher Breen may be a Macworld senior editor to some, but he's "Mr. Dada" to his seven-year-old daughter.]

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