Friday, November 27, 2009

Parental controls on multiple computers

Didn't see this one coming: earlier today, Robby (my 7 year-old son) mentioned in passing: "Ricky [my 9 year-old son] knows the password on the computer upstairs." I didn't immediately grasp what he meant - after all, I'd set each boy up with their own account with a password and customized their desktop so they could get access to their e-mail, Club Penguin, etc. The two computers - one XP, one Vista - each had parental controls enabled, with an explicit whitelist indicating which sites they could visit.

Then it hit me: he knew the parental controls password.

Whoa.


Sure enough, one thing (on a fairly short list) Vista's parental controls does well is it provides a report of sites that each account has accessed. Since the account can only get access to sites which have been explicitly whitelisted, this list shouldn't be that interesting. Unless there are new sites on the whitelist! Sure enough, Vista shows you which sites were unblocked in the last week. Gotta give the kid credit: he's discovered a couple adventure games online (no clue where/how - that's a discussion for another day) and logged in as me to whitelist the site so he could continue to play.

Once he had the power to whitelist sites, he had the power to remove the time restrictions on his account. Turns out almost the entire time we were cooking on Thanksgiving day, he was battling ogres and advancing to a level 17 knight with an upgraded sword and a shield with magic powers. (Do I sound proud? I shouldn't, right?)

As I started poking around looking for a better solution, I had a hard time finding something that would work. Here's my wish list:

  • individual accounts for each child
  • time-based restrictions, both for time of day and cumulative time logged in
  • content filtering (i.e., no adult sites) as well as a whitelist/blacklist to enable or disable specific sites
  • centralized account config, ideally web-based (this allows Robin or I to administer from our own computers, instead of needing to log into theirs - and avoids having to set up duplicate controls on each computer for each user)
  • traffic logs

Before this sounds like I'm trying to delegate responsibility for managing my kids' online experience: I'm not. I actually want them to explore, and learn to use the machines beyond pointing and clicking on things. (Looked at that way, the whole 'figure out Dad's password and then reverse-engineer the parental controls mechanism so I can get what I want' thing looks like a big success. +1 for me, I guess.)

But Robin and I aren't always looking over their shoulders - whether we're cooking Thanksgiving dinner, or putting their sister to bed, or, yes, hanging out by ourselves - there are times when they're on their computer by themselves and I want them to be safe. The setup we had - XP & Vista's default controls - just didn't cut it. Things weren't centrally managed, there was no ability to restrict the total time on the computer (i.e., 'no more than 2 hours on the computer per day'), and the ability to override settings using the admin account password (which I've since changed, thank you very much!) all made for a less-than-ideal setup.


I asked on Twitter, and got a couple replies but nothing that seemed tailored to what I wanted. I asked on Facebook: nothing. And a couple hours of looking online produced surprisingly little: most solutions were either single-computer solutions or, in a few cases, were hardware based. Then I stumbled on a post on flyertalk.com, of all places, looking to do exactly what I was looking to do. And the recommendation was to a service I hadn't yet found in my online research: Safe Eyes. The key for me? You can install it on up to 3 computers for no additional cost.

I've now installed it on both computers the boys use, and Robin's PC as an administrator. The accounts for the boys are managed by Safe Eyes - so when they log into their accounts on either the XP or Vista machines, the Safe Eyes app logs them in (their Safe Eyes account credentials can be saved, so that they're logged in automatically); if they're logged in during a time when they're not allowed to be online, they get a dialog box telling them that.

Controls are well done: it took about 20 minutes to configure what types of sites are OK (see below), which specific URLs are OK, whether they can IM, etc. The time limits are both time-of-day as well as elapsed-time, and various other controls let you ID specific programs you allow/disallow. A browser toolbar sits on Robin's computer (IE only, unfortunately - doesn't work for Chrome) that lets her add a site to the whitelist with one click - a nice feature if the kids hear about a new site they want to add to their list of visited sites.


(Admin screen showing summary of each account)



(Whitelist setup is centrally managed across accounts)

I had both boys read and sign the "Internet Game Plan" - a good, common-sense list of things that both boys should be aware of as they spend more time online. As tech-savvy as Robin and I both are, it was good to go back over the basics as much for our benefit to make sure that the boys felt comfortable with these guidelines.

Mostly, Safe Eyes is a nice technical solution to a problem that's only partly technical: as I explained to Ricky, by stealing our password he violated our trust. Had he asked us for permission to play that game, we could have looked at it together - but he didn't, and got caught. So we've dialed back his access - and he will earn it back. Safe Eyes will make it easier for us to manage that process, and give him more confidence that his effort will be rewarded.

Couple of things the geek in me would like to see: IM notifications that a kid's time has expired (perhaps asking for an OK to extend the time?), a simple way to see how much time remaining in a day each child has. It's also important to note that Safe Eyes is primarily focused on Internet usage, so if your interest is more towards limiting specific apps, this may not be the right fit for you. (Almost 100% of what we do on a computer is in the browser - e-mail, IM, games, etc. - so this works just fine for us.) Safe Eyes does support "program blocking" - but as near as I can tell, it's for programs that access the Internet, not any app on your computer.

In the end, Safe Eyes is pretty close to my ideal solution. I didn't need to buy new hardware, it's not hard to install, it allows me to manage everything on the web, and it will grow as we let the kids do more online without sacrificing their safety. If I wanted to install it on my Mac to simplify admin even further, though, I'd have to upgrade my license: by default, Safe Eyes allows you to install on up to 3 computers - don't get me wrong, I love their approach... but we have 4 computers. :) They also support up to 10 users across those 3 computers, which seems more than enough for any family.

(Disclaimer: I signed up for Safe Eyes' affiliate program after buying my own subscription. I'm really impressed with the service so far. If you decide to sign up after clicking on that link, Safe Eyes will pay me a few bucks as a referral fee. I've done this for similar services in the past - SitterCity, Click 'n Kids - not for the compensation, just because they're great services. What little money I tend to make simply goes to off-setting the cost of using the services themselves.)

4 comments:

  1. This is a great post. My daughter is only 16 months but already knows how to push the power button on the DVD player when she doesn't like what her dad is watching -- not long now.

    My only drawback is that it is not compatible with a mac.

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  2. @Sheri - it is compatible with a Mac: http://www.internetsafety.com/download-parental-monitoring-software-for-osx.php

    A funny update: my 7 year-old came downstairs yesterday, told me the computer wasn't working. I walked up, asked him what was wrong. "I can't get to Lego.com." OK, that's an approved site, so I figured he was right... only to find out that the issue was he'd used his allotted time. "But! I used my time on the other computer!"

    It didn't occur to him that the time limits were per user, not per computer.

    :)

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  3. I love your post, it's what I'm trying to help other parents learn about with internet safety. Thank you for your detailed information.

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  4. We can't personally watch our kids everytime they go to the internet, that's why we need a software to watch over them. There is a software at TUKI (The Ultimate Kids' Internet) that is free to download and totally fun and safe for kids.

    ReplyDelete