The story on the web can be found at http://www.wired.com/geekdad/
- By Chuck Lawton
- Email Author
- September 1, 2009 |
Using a computer can be an extremely enriching experience, especially for young people. Using this technology to explore, learn, and have fun whether on the internet or playing games creates an environment where learning can be exciting. As with all things our children experience, we parents want to be both involved and set limits on what they are doing on their own – especially at a young age. Software vendors have been giving us parental controls for some time, but with Windows, Microsoft’s offerings have been historically lackluster. The release of Windows 7 is just months away and through release candidate testing it’s clear that Microsoft has made massive amounts of improvements to their core product. It’s also nice to see that parental controls have received the same amount of attention.
But why do we need parental controls? Consider this analogy: As we teach our kids to ride a bike, we put on training wheels and supervise them as they ride up and down our driveway. Soon we give them more autonomy letting them ride up and down the street and later around the block unsupervised. Eventually we take off the training wheels completely.
Similarly we also want to slowly introduce our kids to computing and the internet. We can’t hover over their shoulder watching and instructing every move they make but we can still be involved. Using technology such as parental controls will allow you to give your kids some autonomy to explore within the limits we set for them, and spur discussion when they reach those limits.
Windows 7′s parental controls allow us to limit what sites our kids can browse to, what programs they can run, and how much time they spend on the computer. But it wasn’t always this way. In Windows XP, Microsoft’s concept of parental controls was mostly a joke, with poorly implemented controls in a handful of applications. With Windows Vista, we saw a major rewrite of parental controls which integrated those controls into the operating system. And now with Windows 7 we have a refinement that begins to get things right.
So here are seven things to like about parental controls in Windows 7.
1. It comes bundled with Windows: Often times, Microsoft has been criticized for bundling software with its operating system. Internet Explorer is the most famous example, which led to the Department of Justice’s long anti-trust battle in the late 90′s.
However unlike the bundling of IE which is just application that runs in Windows, parental controls is a part of Windows. It hooks into the user model, is managed from the control panel, and many of the features control exactly how Windows behaves. As such, I find it difficult to imagine a 3rd party tool that could function as well without this integration.
2. It’s easy to configure: Microsoft has gone to great lengths to make enabling parental controls easy while also providing information about its features along the way. From the outset, accessing parental controls is front and center in the Category view of the Control Panel.
Pictured here, you can easily access additional information about what parental controls allow you to do, and enabling that functionality is straight forward. Information and options are presented clearly with helpful links peppered everywhere. And it’s nice to see that Microsoft’s help content is actually, well, helpful.
Additionally, keep in mind that you can apply parental controls differently – or not at all – for every account on your computer.
3. You can control what programs can be ran: Arguably the most powerful feature in Windows 7′s parental controls, you can set which installed programs can be ran under your child’s account. But with that power comes some tedious tweaking. Enabling this feature presents you with a list of every program executable present on the computer.
If you’re cherry-picking programs, you may miss built-in programs such as Microsoft Paint or programs required for 3rd party software such as Apple’s iTunes, meaning those programs may not function correctly. Therefore, you’re better off allowing everything and disabling the specific programs you don’t want them to use, such as a bit-torrent program or your financial software.
Making the program selection (or de-selection) process easier, Microsoft displays any descriptions provided by the application developer are listed in the dialog. So if you’re unsure of what wab.exe is, the description column will kindly tell you that it’s the Windows Address Book.
4. You can set limits on games: In addition to choosing what programs you can allow your kids to run, you can separately control what games your kids can play. You can set this independently of applications, and with different properties. For example, you can set a maximum ESRB rating that your kids are allowed to play or select specific games to include or exclude. Additionally, you can prevent all games from being run.
While the interface is fairly clear, what remains to be seen is how completely software vendors will identify their games in Windows for this section to be effective. But if you are in control of all software installed on your computer, then you should easily be able to combine this section with the above application filtering to keep your younger kids from playing your M-rated games.
And don’t forget, you can limit your 8 year old to games rated E and your teenagers to games rated T provided they each have their own log in account on your computer.
Setting up the control is as easy as clicking on the boxes for which you would like to prevent the kids from logging in to the computer. Should they try during a prevented time, Windows notifies them of the restriction. We’d like to see an additional control that allows a certain number of hours per day of computer time, but that may be difficult in practice to implement, should your child leave the computer for a period of time without logging off.
6. Web filtering has been improved through Windows Live: Filtering web content is a moving target. Black list or white list all you want, you’ll always be modifying the list. Fortunately there are services that can make this job much less tedious. Once such service is the free Windows Live suite which can hook in to parental controls in Windows 7 enabling you to monitor what your kids do online.
Setting up this feature was the most cumbersome of all of the parental controls, requiring a separate download from the Windows Live Family Safety website. Once installed, you need to create a free Windows Live account. But once you have an account, you can turn on the Windows Live Family Safety software under Additional Controls in the parental controls control panel.
Management of web restrictions is done at the Windows Live page. You can set various levels of content filtering or switch to a pre-determined list of child-friendly sites which can also include sites you’ve white listed. You can also prevent file downloads. Other features of this service include activity reporting, contact management (controlling who your kids can communicate with online), and the ability to manage requests by your kids to access restricted content.
7. It’s extensible: Parental controls in Windows 7 can be extended by third parties to include functionality not included by Windows. For example, the Web Filtering feature described above used to be integrated in Windows Vista’s parental controls. However, Microsoft improved the capability by moving it to a Windows Live service. From the perspective of Windows 7 parental controls, this new functionality is provided by a third party, and there are likely many software manufacturers getting ready to hook in to this interface once Windows 7 ships.
Whether parental controls will be right for you depends on your approach to allowing your kids use your computer. While not perfect, these controls finally give us options without having to purchase extra software. And it’s nice to see that Microsoft’s valued-added features actually begin to add value.