Giving children access to a computer and the Internet is increasingly important, but the same is true for protecting them. Setting boundaries and fostering a healthy relationship with technology may seem difficult, but macOS has built-in parental controls that can help.
Create your child’s user account
Your child can share a computer with the rest of the family, or they can have their own Mac in their bedroom. To define rules, you can create a dedicated user account for your child.
If more than one child will be using the Mac you set up, you’ll need to create separate user accounts for each of them. You can configure separate permissions and control layers for each of these accounts. With their own account, each child has their own disk space for documents, photos and other files.
Even if your child has their own computer, you should be the only one with administrator access. The administrator account is the one you create when you start the Mac for the first time. It gives you unhindered access to the full suite of functions.
The best way to do this is to configure the Mac yourself. The first time you turn on the computer, follow the setup procedure as if it were your own. Be sure to set a secure administrator account password that your child will not guess.
When your new Mac is set up and ready to go, it’s time to create an account for your child:
Go to System Preferences> Users and Groups and click the Padlock button. Authenticate with your password, Apple Watch or Touch ID.
Click on the plus sign (+) to create a new account.
Select “Standard” from the “New Account” drop-down menu.
Type in the requested account information, then click “Create User”.
Remember that choosing the right account type helps immensely as only administrator accounts can install apps. This is important because Apple’s parental controls work by application. If your child can install applications directly, he can install a browser that bypasses the restrictions you have put in place.
After creating the appropriate user account, it’s time to apply Apple’s parental controls.
Use screen time to apply parental controls
In macOS Mojave (10.14) and earlier versions, “Parental Control” was a separate section under “System Preferences”. macOS Catalina (10.15), however, you configure parental controls via “Screen Time” under “System Preferences” instead. To find out which version of macOS your computer is running, click the Apple logo, then select “About this Mac”.
In this article, we are focusing on macOS Catalina and later versions, so keep that in mind if you are following an older version.
The first thing you need to do is to log out of your administrator account and then log in to the new child account you just created. After that, launch System Preferences> Screen Time and activate this function in the Options menu.
Check the box next to “Use screen access code” to activate it, then enter a unique four-digit access code that your child will not be able to guess (however, make sure it is something you will not forget).
Now use the remaining options to set limits on applications, content type, and overall computer usage. Remember to do this for each user account; log in and adjust the permissions for each as you see fit.
The Downtime option lets you lock the Mac at certain times of the day. During downtime, anyone using the computer can only access applications that you whitelist. If you are concerned that your children will be using their computer when they should be sleeping, downtime is the tool for you.
To activate the function, click on “Activate”. Then you can either click on the “Daily” or “Custom” option to create your own schedule. A personalized schedule is perfect if you agree with your child who uses the computer more on weekends.
If you deactivate “Block at stop”, your child can ignore the time limit for the day. This makes “Screen Time” more of an advisory tool than a true parental control, however, if you want to block apps properly, leave it on.
If you don’t want your child to overuse a particular application or service, the “Application limits” option can give you some peace of mind. This functionality limits the use of the application to a certain number of minutes per day. The timers are reset at midnight.
In the “Application limits” menu, click the plus sign (+) to add the application that you want to limit. You can also select entire categories of applications, such as “Games” or “Social Networks”. If you prefer, however, you can select the specific apps (like Safari or Fortnite) that you want to limit. Set a time or a calendar, click the box next to “Block at the end of the limit” to deactivate the application when the time is up, then click “Done”.
Unfortunately, macOS does not differentiate between an application that someone is using and an application that is just open in the background. For example, if you limit Safari to two hours a day and your child writes an assignment while researching the web, macOS will always limit Safari to two hours, regardless of how long your child spends browsing.
This is not a problem for other applications, such as games, but you may want to think twice before limiting basic services, such as Safari or Messages.
In the “Always allowed” section, you can whitelist all the applications your child can access at any time. These applications will continue to operate after the start of the “downtime”.
If you want to block everything and configure a whitelist of applications, activate the blocking option of “All applications and categories” in “Application limits”, then add each application under “Always allowed”.
Content and Confidentiality
The “Content and Privacy” menu is where you can really restrict what your child can see and do on a Mac. Click “Activate” to activate this function, then go through each section.
In the “Content” section, you can restrict web content, explicit language, and multiplayer games. If you want to limit web content, you can choose “Unlimited access”, “Limit adult websites” (which applies Apple’s content filter), or the nuclear option, “Authorized websites only” (which blocks everything except apps you whitelist).
“Stores” are primarily aimed at people using iOS, because “standard” Mac accounts cannot install software anyway. This section affects apps, movies, TV shows, books, music, podcasts, and news that appear in search results.
If you wish to limit access to the Mac’s “camera”, “Siri & Dictation” or the “library”, click on the “Applications” tab.
If you don’t limit Siri, your child can use it to make web requests and bypass some of your other rules. The options under “Other” only affect iOS.
Test your rules
With your new rules in place, it’s time to test them. Try watching a video with an age limit on YouTube or use an app that you have blocked. Ask Siri to retrieve information for you from the web.
Browse the list of available applications in your “Applications” folder and make sure you are satisfied with them. If you have installed a second browser, such as Firefox or Chrome, remember to impose the same limits as those you did on Safari.
If the Mac is shared or if there are other computers on the network, make sure that any content shared in the Music or TV libraries is suitable for everyone. To do this, launch the Music and TV applications, then click the drop-down arrow next to “Library” in the sidebar, as shown below.
Remember to test each supervised account you have created. You can review your settings from time to time and relax restrictions that turn out to be too extreme or complicated. As your child gets older, you can increase the age restrictions so they can access age-appropriate content. The ultimate goal is to foster a healthy relationship between your child and the technology they use on a daily basis.
Remember, kids are smart
Your children will likely be looking for ways to get around the restrictions you impose. When I was a child, we used tools specially designed to remove all restrictions on school computers. We found ways to access the file system, play games on the network, and hide our tracks so we don’t get caught.
Computers and software have improved considerably since my studies. However, the curious nature of children will never change. Fortunately, due to the way “standard” accounts work on macOS, many tricks (such as changing the time zone to bypass “downtime”) are prohibited.
Therefore, @AppleThe screen access code can be bypassed. My son just deactivated the restrictions I added using an application called PIN Finder, which returned my PIN code after scanning its backup.
DO NOT trust screen time restrictions.
PS: I’m crazy, but I’m also proud.
– Nando Vieira (@fnando) May 17, 2019
By far, the biggest threat to your new parental controls is your own safety practices. If your child can guess your “Screen Time” password or your administrator account password, he can bypass all your rules. It is a good idea to change your password and password frequently. It will also teach your child good safety practices.
There are tools designed to remove restrictions on macOS, and your child can try to find them. There isn’t much you can do about it except wait for Apple to fix the latest run of exploits.
The best way to combat this is to give your child minimal reasons to beat the restrictions. Install child-friendly software and games, such as Minecraft, that encourage learning and cooperation through play. Listen to your child’s complaints and try to rationalize your decision.
Sometimes you might find a compromise (an extra hour on weekends, for example) is all it takes.