Set up the Mac's Parental Controls (OS X Lion through OS X Yosemite)

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Setting Up Parental Controls (OS X Lion through OS X Yosemite)

Girl Using MacBook
Managed with Parental Controls account is just one of the user account types available on the Mac. MoMo Productions / Getty Images

OS X offers several different types of user accounts, all of which have specific access rights and capabilities. One often overlooked account type, the Managed with Parental Controls account, allows an administrator to control which apps and system features a user can access. This can be a real time saver for letting young children use your Mac, without having to clean up a mess, or fix the problems they create if they change system settings.

Parental Controls let you set limits on the use of the App Store, limit the use of email, set time limits on computer usage, set limits on instant messaging, control which apps may be used, limit access to the Internet and web content, and create logs that allow you to monitor how a Managed with Parental Controls account holder uses the Mac.

A Managed with Parental Controls account is just one of the user account types available on the Mac. If you don't need to control access to apps, printers, the Internet, and other system resources, consider one of these other account types instead:

  • Administrator: Allows you to configure almost all aspects of a Mac's system, including creating user accounts.
  • Standard: Best for day-to-day usage. Ensures that no destructive changes can be made but otherwise allows a great deal of freedom.
  • Guest User or Sharing Only: Users can access shared files or, if you have set it up, share a screen over your local network. Individuals with Guest User or Sharing Only accounts cannot log in directly to your Mac or make any changes.

What You Need to Set Up Parental Controls

  • OS X 10.7 or later; these instructions cover OS X Lion through OS X Yosemite. Later versions of the Mac OS have significant differences the setup process, though you can still use this article as a basic guide. Earlier versions of OS X include a parental controls system, but the setup process is different. You can find instructions for earlier versions of OS X in the Set Up Parental Controls on Your Mac article.
  • A Managed with Parental Controls account. If you haven't set up this type of account before, please review the Add Managed Accounts With Parental Controls guide.
  • An Administrator account. You will need an admin account to create the Managed with Parental Controls account, as well as to set up the parental controls.
  • A few minutes of your time. The process isn't long or difficult, but you'll probably need to revisit the Parental Controls options a few times to fine-tune the settings.

If you're ready, let's get started.

02
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OS X Parental Controls: Configuring Access to Applications

Parental Controls preference pane showing the Apps tab
The Apps tab in the Parental Controls preference pane is where you can specify which apps may be used by the Managed with Parental Controls account holder. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

You can use the Parental Controls preference pane to limit the apps a Managed with Parental Controls account holder can access. You can also determine whether the account will use the standard Finder or a simplified Finder, which is easier for younger children to navigate.

Access Parental Controls

  1. Launch System Preferences by clicking the System Preferences icon in the Dock, or selecting System Preferences from the Apple menu.
  2. In the System category of the System Preferences window, select the Parental Controls icon.
  3. If there are no Managed with Parental Controls accounts on your Mac, you will be asked to create one or to convert the account you're currently signed in with to a Managed with Parental Controls account. WARNING do not select the convert option if you're logged in with an administrator account.
  4. If you need to create a Managed with Parental Controls account, select the option and click Continue. Complete the requested information and click Continue. For details about filling in the required information, see Add Managed Accounts With Parental Controls.
  5. If there are one or more Managed user accounts on your Mac, the Parental Controls preference pane will open, listing all of the current Managed with Parental Controls accounts in the left sidebar of the window.
  6. Click the lock icon in the bottom left corner of the window, and enter your administrator name and password.
  7. Click OK.

Manage Apps, the Finder, and Docs

  1. With the Parental Controls preference pane open, select the Managed user account you wish to configure from the sidebar.
  2. Click the Apps tab.

The following options will be available.

Use Simple Finder: The Simple Finder replaces the standard Finder that comes with a Mac. The Simple Finder is designed to be extremely easy to use. It provides access only to the list of apps you select. It also only allows the user to edit documents that reside in the user's home folder. Simple Finder is appropriate for young children. It helps ensure that they can only create a mess in their own home folder and that they can't change any system settings.

Limit Applications: This allows you to select the applications or services that are available to the Managed with Parental Controls account. Unlike the Simple Finder option, the Limit Applications setting lets the user retain the conventional Finder and Mac interface.

You can use the Allow App Store Apps drop-down menu to specify an appropriate age level (such as up to 12+) or block all access to the App Store.

All App Store apps have an age rating associated with them. If you download an app for yourself that has a higher age rating, you don't have to go back to the Parental Controls setting to block access to it.

The Allowed Apps list is organized in the following categories:

  • App Store: You can prevent or allow access to apps you purchase from the App Store. Selecting or deselecting an individual app from this list overrides the global setting in the App Store drop-down menu.
  • Other Apps: These are the apps generally found in your Mac's Applications folder. However, Parental Controls will also look in other folders on your Mac for apps.
  • Widgets: These are apps meant to run on the Dashboard. They are generally small, single-function apps, such as calculators, translators, and dictionaries.
  • Utilities: These are the apps that Apple and a few other third-party app developers include in the Utilities folder, which is located inside the Applications folder. Most of these utilities are used to configure various services on the Mac.
  • Developer: This item isn't present in most Mac installations, but if you have downloaded the Apple Developer tools, you can block access to them from this category.

Placing a check mark next to any of the apps in a list allows access to it.

The last item in this dialog box is a checkbox to allow the Managed with Parental Controls user to modify the Dock. Check or uncheck this box, as you wish. Your selection will take effect the next time the user logs in.

The next page in this guide covers parental controls for web access.

03
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OS X Parental Controls: Web Site Restrictions

Parental Controls preference pane showing Web tab.
The Web section of the Parental Controls preference pane lets you try to limit the types of web content a managed account holder can see. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

The Web section of the Parental Controls preference pane lets you try to limit the types of web content a managed account holder can see. I say 'try' because, like any of the available web filtering systems, OS X's parental controls can't catch everything.

The website restrictions that Apple employs are based on filtering adult content, but they also support both a white list and a black list, which you can manually set up.

Set Up Web Site Restrictions

  1. If you haven't already done so, open the Parental Controls preference pane (instructions on page 2).
  2. If the lock icon in the bottom-left corner of the dialog box is locked, click it and enter your administrator login information. If the lock is already open, you can proceed.
  3. Select a Managed account.
  4. Select the Web tab.

You will see three basic choices for setting up website restrictions:

  • Allow unrestricted access to the web. This turns web content filtering off and provides the same access to the web as a standard user account.
  • Try to limit access to adult websites automatically. This option turns on website filtering and attempts to prevent access to adult-oriented content. You can manually add sites you would like to restrict access to, as well as sites you want to grant access to, by using the Customize button, which is located just below this option.
  • Allow access to only these websites. With this option selected, web access is limited to a white list of acceptable websites. Apple pre-populates the white list with a small sampling of sites. You can add to or delete from the allowed websites list using the plus (+) or minus (-) buttons located just below the list.

Web filtering is an ongoing process, and websites change constantly. While the automatic filtering works well, you'll still need to add or block websites from time to time as the Managed user explores the web.

04
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OS X Parental Controls: People, Game Center, Mail, and Messages

Parental Control preference pane with People tab selected
Both Apple Mail and Messages can be managed in Parental Controls by setting up a list of allowed contacts that the user can send email and messages to or receive email and messages from. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

Apple's Parental Controls let you control how a managed user can interact within the Mail, Messages, and Game Center apps. This is accomplished by limiting messages and mail to a list of approved contacts.

If you haven't already done so, open the Parental Controls preference pane (instructions on page 2). Click the People tab.

Control Game Center Access

Game Center lets users play multiplayer games, add other players as friends, and interact with them through the games that are part of the Game Center. You can prevent Game Center from being available to the managed user account by adding it to the list of blocked apps (see page 2, Configuring Access to Applications).

If you decide to allow access to Game Center, you can manage how the user can interact with others:

  • Allow joining Game Center multiplayer games. Placing a check mark in this option will allow the user to participate in multiplayer games that support Game Center. Leaving this option unchecked will restrict Game Center to single-player games.
  • Allow adding Game Center friends. Ticking this option lets the user add other Game Center players to a list of friends. This is a handy way for the user to invite other friends to participate in a game, as well as allow anyone in the friend list to send a game request.

Managing Email and Messages Contacts

Both Apple Mail and Messages can be managed in Parental Controls by setting up a list of allowed contacts that the user can send email and messages to or receive email and messages from. This Allowed Contacts list only works for Apple Mail and Apple Messages.

  • Limit Mail. Place a check mark here to prevent the managed user from sending or receiving mail from anyone who is not in the Allowed Contacts list.
  • Limit Messages (Mountain Lion and later) or Limit iChat (Lion). Place a check mark here to keep the managed user from exchanging messages with anyone who isn't on the Allowed Contacts list.
  • Limit iChat (Lion). To limit iChat interaction to a list of allowed contacts, place a check mark here.

Allowed Contacts List

The Allowed Contacts list becomes active if you place a check mark in either the Limit Mail or Limit Messages options. Once the list is active, you can use the plus (+) button to add a contact or the minus (-) button to delete a contact.

  1. To add to the Allowed Contacts list, click the plus (+) button.
  2. In the drop-down sheet that appears, enter the first and last name of the individual.
  3. Enter the individual's email or AIM account info.
  4. Use the drop-down menu to select the account type you are entering (Email or AIM).
  5. If the person you are adding has multiple accounts that you wish to allow contact from, click the plus (+) button in the drop-down sheet.
  6. Click Add.

  • Send permission requests to: You can receive a permission request whenever the Managed user wishes to exchange messages or emails or just email (OS X Mavericks and later)  with an individual who is not in the Allowed Contacts list. The permission request is sent to your email address. When you receive a request, you can return to the Parental Controls preference pane and add the user to the list. If you wish to receive permission requests, place a check mark in this option and then enter your email address.

05
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OS X Parental Controls: Setting Usage Time Limits

Parental Controls preference pane with the Time Limits tab selected
By using the Time Limits feature, you can specify the number of hours per weekday or weekend that a managed user can access the Mac, as well as restrict access to certain times of day. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

In addition to managing apps, web access, and contacts, the Mac's Parental Controls feature can also limit when and for how long a managed user account can access the Mac.

By using the Time Limits feature, you can specify the number of hours per weekday or weekend that a managed user can access the Mac, as well as restrict access to certain times of the day.

Setting Daily and Weekend Time Limits

  1. If you haven't already done so, launch System Preferences (click System Preferences in the Dock, or select it from the Apple menu), and select the Parental Controls preference pane.
  2. Click the Time Limits tab.

  • Weekday time limits. Place a check mark in the "Limit computer use to" box, and then adjust the slider to select the amount of time that the Mac can be used per day.
  • Weekend time limits. Select the "Limit computer use to" box, and then drag the slider to select the amount of time that the Mac can be used on a weekend day.

Prevent Computer Use at Specified Times

You can prevent a Managed user from spending time at the computer during certain hours of the day. This is a good way to enforce bedtime and ensure that Jenny or Justine aren't getting up in the middle of the night to play games.

  • School nights. To prevent the Mac from being used on school nights (Sunday - Thursday), place a check mark here, and then set the start and end times for the restriction, such as 10:00 PM to 7:00 AM.
  • Weekend. This time period covers Friday and Saturday and lets you specify different times than you set for school nights. Place a check mark here if you wish to control weekend access, and then set the start and end times.

The weekend time limits can be used to help ensure some outdoor time during the weekends while still allowing ample computer time by setting the Weekend Time limits to a generous amount of time, but the specific time setting to keep the kids off the computer during the afternoon.

06
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OS X Parental Controls: Control Dictionary, Printer, and CD/DVD Usage

Parental Controls preference pane with the Other tab selected
All of the items under the Other tab are pretty self-explanatory. A check mark (or the lack of one) indicates whether you're enabling or disabling access to a system feature. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon Inc.

The last tab in the Parental Controls preference pane is the Other tab. Apple stuffed a number of mostly unrelated (but still important) items into this catch-all section.

Controlling Access to Dictation, Dictionary, Printers, CDs/DVDs, and Passwords

All of the items under the Other tab are pretty self-explanatory. A check mark (or the lack of one) indicates whether you're enabling or disabling access to a system feature.

In the Parental Controls preference pane, select the Other tab.

  • Disable Built-in Camera (OS X Mavericks and later). Prevents a managed user from being able to access and control any built-in cameras, including those within connected Apple displays. Some third party webcams that use Apple's camera drivers may also be disabled. If you're using a third-party webcam, be sure and test camera access after selecting this option.
  • Disable use of Dictation. The Mac supports the use of dictation in various apps. You can prevent an individual from using the dictation feature by placing a check mark here.
  • Hide profanity in Dictionary. The Dictionary app is chock-full of interesting words, some of which you may wish to prevent younger users from seeing. You can turn the profanity filter on to prevent access to most inappropriate words by placing a check mark here.
  • Limit printer administration. Placing a check mark here prevents the user from being able to add, delete, or change any of the printer settings used by this Mac. It does not prevent someone from using a printer.
  • Limit CD and DVD burning. If you wish to prevent the user from burning CDs or DVDs, place a check mark here. However, this will only prevent the user from burning optical media using the Finder or an Apple-supplied utility, such as Disk Utility. It's still possible to burn media using third-party applications.
  • Disable changing the password. Normally, users are allowed, nay encouraged, to change their passwords occasionally; it's a good security measure. However, you may want to prevent younger users, who forget passwords easily, from being able to change their password without your assistance.

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OS X Parental Controls: Activity Logs

Parental Control logs
To access the Parental Control logs, select the Apps, Web, or People tab; it doesn't matter which of the three tabs you choose. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

The Parental Controls system on a Mac maintains a log of each managed user's activity. The logs can show you applications that were used, messages sent or received, websites that were visited, and websites that were blocked.

Accessing Parental Controls Logs

  1. With the Parental Controls preference pane open, select a Managed user whose activity you wish to review.
  2. Select any of the tabs; Apps, Web, People, Time Limits, Other, it doesn't matter which of the tabs you choose.
  3. Click the Logs button near the bottom right corner of the preference pane.
  4. A sheet will drop down, displaying the logs for the selected user.

Logs are organized into collections, shown in the left-hand panel. The supported collections are:

  • Websites Visited. This collection contains all of the websites that were visited by the managed user.
  • Websites Blocked. This list contains sites the managed user attempted to access but that were blocked by the Parental Control settings.
  • Applications. This collection contains a list of all of the apps that were used.
  • Messages. This list shows all of the messages that were exchanged with others.

Selecting one of the log collections will display the resulting information in the Logs panel.

Making Use of the Logs

Logs can be overwhelming, especially if you only look at them occasionally. To help organize the information, you can use the log filters, which are available from two drop-down menus at the top of the Logs sheet.

  • Show activity for: This menu lets you filter log activity by date. You can select Today, One week, One month, Three months, Six months, One year, or All.
  • Group by: This drop-down menu lets you organize the logs by either the date of the log event or the category being displayed. For instance, when viewing the Website Visited or Website Blocked logs, the Group by menu will show the results either by Date or by Website. When viewing the Application logs, the choice will be by Application or by Date. The Message logs can be viewed by the Contact (person) or by Date.

Log Controls

When viewing the Logs sheet, there are a few additional controls you can access.

  • Right-click a Log Collection and select Clear Log History to remove all of the information from the selected log.
  • Websites Visited logs. When reviewing the Websites Visited logs, you can select a website from the Logs pane and click the disclosure triangle to view additional information about the website. To view the website, click the Open button. To add the website to the blocked list, click the Block button.
  • Websites Blocked logs. When reviewing the Websites Blocked logs, you can select a website from the Logs pane and click the disclosure triangle to view additional information about the website. To view the website, click the Open button. To remove the website from the blocked list, click the Allow button.
  • Applications log. The Applications log allows you to view more detailed information about how the applications in the log were used. To see more info, select a log entry and click the disclosure triangle. You can open the selected app by clicking the Open button. You can add the app to the list of blocked apps by clicking the Restrict button.
  • Messages logs (Mountain Lion or later) or iChat logs (Lion). You can view details about each message exchanged in the log by clicking the disclosure triangle next to a message. To see the actual message content, click the Open button. To add the person the message is being exchanged with to the blocked list, click the Restrict button.

To close the Logs pane, click the Done button.

08
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OS X Parental Controls: A Few Last Things

Parental Controls showing the Simple Finder
The Simple Finder presents apps allowed to be used in a special Finder window. Screen shot courtesy of Coyote Moon, Inc.

OS X's Parental Controls feature helps you safeguard younger family members who would like to use the Mac without you hovering around.

With the various filtering options (apps, web content, people, time limits), you can create a reasonably safe environment, and let your children explore the Mac, use some of its apps, and even venture onto the web in reasonable security.

It's important to update the parental controls settings at regular intervals. Kids change; they make new friends, develop new hobbies, and they're always curious. What was inappropriate yesterday may be acceptable today. The Parental Controls feature on a Mac is not set-it-and-forget-it technology.

Try Out the Parental Control Settings

When you first set up a Managed with Parental Controls account, be sure to log in to your Mac using the new account. You may find that you need to set up an Apple ID for the account if you want the user to have access to many of the Mac's features, such as messaging or iCloud. You'll probably also need to set up an email account and add some bookmarks to Safari.

You may also be surprised to discover that one or more background apps are trying to run but are being blocked by the Parental Controls settings. Some examples are utilities for non-Apple keyboards, anti-virus apps, and drivers for peripherals. Logging in to the managed user account is a good way to identify any background apps that you forgot to add to the Parental Controls Allowed Apps list.

These global background apps will show themselves when Parental Controls puts up a dialog box informing you of the app's name and giving you the option of allowing once, allowing always, or OK (continue to block the app). If you select the Allow Always option and supply the administrator user name and password, the app will be added to the Allowed Apps list, so the Managed user won't encounter the warning dialog box each time they log in. If you select Allow Once or OK, then every time the user logs in, they will see the warning dialog box.

If there are background items that you don't think should be starting, you can find instructions for removing them in the Remove Login Items You Don't Need article.

Once you have logged in and verified that the Managed user account works the way it should, you're ready to let your kids have some fun on your Mac.