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Articles: Your Mac and Your Kids

For some Mac fans reading this, their Mac is almost like their child. However, for those of us who have both children and Macs, we have to take responsibility for educating and protecting our children on the computer. This was never made clearer to me than one late night a few months back.

My daughter was upstairs on her computer and my wife and I were downstairs watching a movie. First my daughter called down asking for her mother's birth date. Then, two minutes after getting the answer, she called down and asked for the year. I asked my daughter why she needed to know. She replied, "just asking." Her mother shouted the answer before I could stop her. I paused the movie and said, "we have to go see what our girl is up to," because I had a suspicion she was giving out my wife's information online. We were met on the stairs by an ecstatic ten year old that told us she had just won a free pizza. All she had to do was give them all her mom's personal information.

From this incident I knew I had been lazy with the education of my daughter. I had helped with math and history homework but had given her a computer that is always connected to the Internet without any real instruction. This was my wakeup call. She impresses me daily with her ability to use her iBook. But the same reason kids are good students of computers is the reason they can get into so much trouble on the Internet. Children are mostly trusting and fearless. They trust that aside from dropping a computer, it can be fixed and that no harm can come to them through their actions online. Most of all they do not fear making a mistake, as many adult students do.

Within Mac OS X 10.4, Apple included "Parental Controls" that help a parent supervise their child's computer use. The first step is to always have children use "Non Administrator" user accounts. Whether your child has their own computer or shares yours, they need to have a separate user account. When you create a password for your user account or the "Administrator" account on your child's computer, be sure to select a password they can't guess and that you will never need to tell them. Remember kids are smart and a locked door is more tempting than an open one, so don't think they won't try to get your password. Next, you'll need to create your child's account. In "System Preferences" select "Accounts" and click on the padlock in the lower right hand corner of the window. Enter your password and click on the "+" button above it. Enter your kid's name and a password. This will be the password you can tell them, so make it appropriate to what your child can remember. There is a check box towards the bottom that will ask if the user can administer the computer. Do not check that box. Now that your new user is added, you can click on "Login Options" and check "Enable fast user switching." This will let your child use their account on your computer without shutting down the things you have been working on.

Creating a "Non Administrator" user account is just the first step. You will now need to set up limitations on that account. Doing this will require a good understanding of what your children do online and what you feel they should be able to do. In the "Accounts" section of "System Preferences" click on the user account you made for your child. To the right there will be a tab named "Parental Controls." Clicking on that will bring up five items to configure. "Mail" is the first selection. Checking the box there will filter whom your child will communicate with. You can add email addresses to the list of friends and family. This list can be constantly updated and managed by you. It will even send permission requests to your email.

Next "Finder and System" can be managed. This is where you will make most of your decisions about what the computer is to be used for. Do you want your child to change system settings or burn CDs? Here too you can limit what programs they can use. Limiting programs is best for younger computer users, just keep in mind that as you children grow, so too will their interests and capabilities. It may be better to let kids have access to programs you might not think they would want to use than to limit their options, and if they're not Internet based programs, there's not much trouble they can get into.

Configuring "iChat" is the same as with Mail but instead it is listing permitted persons chat name. This is probably more important to use than mail filtering. Predators in particular can misuse iChat, so filtering stranger's access is recommended. If you don't think there are predators out there, search through the news. Anyone who is inclined to be that kind of monster has found fertile ground on the Internet. They feel safer sending anonymous emails or chatting than lurking around a mall hoping to engage a child in conversation. They're out there, and you may be the only defense standing between your child chatting with predators on-line.

To filter "Safari," the next section, you will need to log in under your child's user account and add sites one by one. To add approved sites will require your Administrator password; so only use this if you want to be in complete control of where your kids go online.

The last item is "Dictionary" and all this does is block profanity when checked. This, like filtering "Safari," is a tough issue for some. If you block your children's access to certain things then you run the risk of not preparing them for when they do encounter them later on. Instead have your kids use the computer where you can see the screen, that way you can see what they are working on and can ask questions.

Apple has also been adding parental controls to other applications too. For instance, iTunes has a new preference tab to help filter iTunes Music Store content, Podcasts and explicit content. However, as new tools are added for parents it is increasingly important not to forget to teach with those tools. I might be able to filter the websites that ask for personal information but I will miss the opportunity to teach my daughter healthy skepticism on the Internet. I can block the strangers but I still need to teach that you should not chat with people you have not met in real life first. Education, not isolation, was the intention of these tools from Apple. So use those tools to help your children discover and explore safely.
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