Meet the Parents

Between September 2005 and July 2011 I was a regular contributor to MacFormat in the UK.

Whereas I’m posting the published articles for my MacWarehouse writing, with the MacFormat ones I’ve decided to post the text as submitted, including any comments that I included for design. I am, however, allowing myself a few small edits for clarity.

The particular one is my thirteenth column, written in September 2006. This is presented purely as a historical record as much, if not all, of the information contained in it may well have changed in the meantime.

Meet the Parents

If you have more than one person that regularly uses your Mac you may well have set up separate accounts so that each person retains all of their preferences and items such as desktop pictures as well as having their own mail and iChat accounts. You may have also set your Mac up so that some of the users do not have rights to administer the computer, which would prevent them from installing any applications that use an installer and will also stop them saving files anywhere apart from their own home directory. If you have young children who use your Mac, Apple offer an even tighter set of controls over what they can do through the use of the Parental Controls tab, which can be found in the Accounts preference pane. The whole concept of parental controls in the Mac OS can be traced back to At Ease, which was an add-on for System 7 back in the early nineties.

Whilst it is not immediately obvious, Parental Controls are extremely valuable for controlling not only what websites our children can visit but also who they interact with on the internet. The Mail and iChat controls allow the administrator to specify who the user that the controls apply to can send and receive emails to & from, and who they can chat with. If an email is sent to a controlled user from someone who is not on the list they don’t receive it, and instead it gets forwarded to the Mac’s administrator for approval, so you can prevent a lot of spam reaching your children; though of course any email that spoofs the address of an approved user will still get through. If the controlled user tries to send an email to someone who is not on the approved list they are warned that they are not allowed to send mail to that person, but are then given the opportunity to ask permission from the administrator. With iChat if someone is not in the approve list you can’t chat with them at all; there is no option to request permission from the administrator you simply have to ask them. The Safari controls prohibit a controlled user from accessing any website that does not appear in Safari’s bookmarks; if the user tries to access a site that is not in their bookmarks Safari will tell them that they can’t access it, and will give the administrator a chance to enter their password and create a bookmark for the site.

That’s the theory at least.

What Safari’s controls actually do is allow access to any website within the same domain as a site that is the same domain as one that has a bookmark. In one way this is completely understandable as if Safari was completely literal about not allowing access to other sites then the administrator would have to bookmark every sub-page on the site. There is no way of limiting access to pages from the same server or those within the same path, e.g. you may be quite happy to give your 5yr old access to and if you authorised the site you would probably be quite surprised that they could now access the BBC’s subsite on sexual health in just three clicks. No parental controls are ever a substitute for a parent being there to ensure that their children only access sites that they want them to access.

Another managed item that is valuable when your Mac is used by the very young, or by others that are challenged by technology, is the Finder itself. You have an option to give the user some limits or to use the Simple Finder. With Simple Finder the Dock is reduced the Finder itself, three folders, My Applications, Documents, Shared and the Trash. The My Applications folder contains just the applications that the administrator has specified that the controlled user can run. These applications are presented alphabetically in a single window; if there are enough they will be spread out over multiple pages with forward and back arrows and numbered buttons for each page. Launching an application takes a single click, which is ideal if Junior has not yet mastered double clicking. The Documents folder again uses a single window and any items in there can again be opened with a single click.

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