The holidays are known for being a time when the kids can’t wait to unwrap the present of their dreams! What used to be wishes for ponies and Red Ryder carbine-action BB Guns has now turned into the desire for a 2.53Ghz MacBook Pro with 4GBs of RAM and an AppleCare Protection Plan. While some might say, “At least they can’t shoot their eye out!”, giving your child their first computer can bring some warranted concerns. It came as no surprise to me that over the past two weeks I’ve had more and more concerned parents asking me about the Parental Control options in Leopard and I’m beginning to realize how under-publicized they are.

While Parental Controls have been around for many years now, it was Leopard that really took that concept to a more sophisticated level that allows for as much flexibility as there are parenting styles. While this article can’t cover all of the detail that Apple has put into it, I at least wanted to highlight the perks.

Any Standard or Managed account can be accessed and controlled by the Parental Control panel within System Preferences (it should be mentioned that by setting Parental Controls the account will become Managed even if it was a Standard account). The first screen in Parental Controls, System, shows the ability to use Simple Finder, as previous OSs have. This shows a very simple desktop with one or two folders and not much else. I’m honestly not a fan of Simple Finder and I think that by using the Parental Controls pane’s new features there are ways to make a much better customized environment. For example, “only allow selected applications” is a great way to ensure that your children (or guests) can only use specific applications. These don’t have to be Apple applications, as the “Other” option allows you to choose any application within your Applications folder. Want your child to only be able to access Safari and MS Word, but not get to games or iChat? Easy! You can even change settings here so they can’t burn DVDs/CDs, change their password or modify their Dock (which is great for toddlers who constantly drag applications out of the Dock).

“Content” allows parents to hide profanities in the Dictionary and to restrict Safari access either by giving it a list of the sites the Managed Account can access or by giving it a list of sites it can’t access. There’s even an option to limit access to adult sites automatically by using a built-in filter. This is a point where I like to remind parents that while this might be too restrictive for older children or some parenting styles, it’s certainly applicable for very young children or those in an unsupervised environment. “Mail & iChat” offers further restrictions for those who want their children to only send and receive mail or messages from those on an approved list. Children can then send permission requests to add new addresses directly to their parents. There can also be time restrictions set on Mail and iChat. “Time Limits” allows parents to set both weekday and weekend time limits so that the computer is literally unusable once an allotted time-frame is up. There’s even a “Bedtime” option to lock them out during certain hours of the day or night.

Want to follow up to be sure that Safari is restricting the right sites or that chats are appropriate? “Logs” gives parents a full log of all of the websites visited, all of the iChat logs and all of the Applications used and for how long. Things get even better when parents realize that there’s an option to control all of these Parental Controls remotely on their own Mac! Do your children have more than one computer they can access in the house? Manage them all from one computer.

While Parental Controls might not be for everyone (in fact I’m sure there are a few people out there thinking this is another horrid reenactment of the V-chip), they can be a valuable asset to parents who want to help their children develop in a computer-centric society while still being there to hold their proverbial hand. The brevity of options allows for as much or as little control as desired and it’s all fully customizable. Curious? Why not create a test account on your computer and give it a whirl!

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