Parental controls for online safety at home

Katherine murray By Katherine Murray

It’s a new era in terms of risk on the Web: from scams to spam to predatory practices, you have more reasons than ever to be proactive about protecting your kids while they’re surfing online.

Fortunately, Windows 7 gives you a robust set of built-in parental controls.

Lots of convenient, but risky, Internet access

So how many computers are there in your house? If you’re like most people, just a few years ago you had one computer that everybody shared (sometimes not so peacefully). Then came the advent of laptops and now netbooks and mobile devices galore. Chances are that several — if not all — of the folks in your house have their own computers. And maybe some of you have more than one computer of your own!

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When everyone used one home computer, it was fairly simple to use antivirus software to keep the computer healthy and to view the browser’s history to see who visited which websites (and decide whether some safe-surfing reminders were in order). But with more devices and more decentralized online activities, it’s considerably harder to monitor it all.

New and more sophisticated threats also make it easier for kids to be scammed, bullied, or stalked online — and if they naively disclose personal information, they could be tricked into having their identities stolen. By sharing the wrong kinds of information online, they could even open you or your family to other types of abuse — such as financial fraud, identity theft, or even physical risk.

Being able to communicate the need for safety online is an important part of enforcing parental controls at home. At first, your kids may resist the idea of being controlled online, but if you approach the topic with safety as the focus, they are more likely to see that good Web practices are one way they can help protect the family. Sitting down with your kids and showing them the parental controls you’re using can also help them understand that your objective really is safe surfing — not just another dastardly attempt to curtail their freedoms.

The newest operating systems provide tools known as parental controls to give parents the ability to manage their kids’ Internet use. In Windows 7, you’ll find these tools in the Control Panel’s User Accounts and Family Safety area. (See Figure 1.) Click Set up parental controls for any user to get started. If you have multiple computers in your house, it’s a good idea to create a homegroup in Windows 7 and set up parental controls for all the computers in your household.

Win7 parental controls
Figure 1. Set up parental controls in the User Accounts and Family Safety area (circled in yellow) of the Windows 7 Control Panel.

What can you do with parental controls?

Windows 7′s parental controls make managing your kids’ use of the computer easy. You can set limits on when they can sign in, which sites they can visit, and which games and programs they can use.

The first step in putting parental controls in place is to create user accounts for each kid. Do this by clicking Add or Remove User Accounts in the User Accounts and Family Safety area in the Control Panel. You will also be prompted to add a password to your own user account, because now you’re the administrator of the kids’ accounts and want to restrict who can change settings.

When you’re ready to choose the Parental Controls settings, click Set up parental controls for any user in the User Accounts and Family Safety area of the Control Panel. Click the user account you want to control and then click the links for Time, Games, and Allow and Block Specific Programs settings. For example, clicking Time displays a schedule in which you can set the daily hours it’s OK for your child to be online. (See Figure 2.)

Setting access times
Figure 2. Click to set the hours that you don’t want your child to be allowed online.

The Game settings allow you to select the game-rating level you’ll allow your child to play — such as Early Childhood, Everyone, Everyone 10+, Teen, Mature, or Adults Only. You can also block specific kinds of content in games, ranging from profanity to crude humor, drug references, and sexual and violent content. You can also block or allow specific games installed on your computer. This helps ensure that your pre-teens aren’t playing the more mature games you allow your teens to play.

Finally, you can use the Parental Controls settings to determine which programs on your computer your kids can use. When you click Allow and Block Specific Programs and select the option that restricts program use, Windows 7 searches for specific programs and displays them in a list. You can then click the checkboxes for each program that your child has permission to use. Click OK to save your changes.

You can change any setting at any time by returning to the Parental Controls page in the Control Panel and clicking the user account you want to change.

Add protection with Windows Live Family Safety

Microsoft also offers a free online safety tool as part of Windows Live Essentials. Windows Live Family Safety (info/download page) adds another level of protection by letting you see who your kids are talking to online and letting you set additional Web restrictions; you can even get reports of online activity.

Windows Live Family Safety works seamlessly with Windows’ built-in Parental Controls tool. It does require a Windows Live sign-in, and it accesses the Web for activity and filtering updates. A feature called SafeSearch is automatically turned on for Bing, Google, and Yahoo Search engines; you can set up safeguards for your children’s e-mail and instant messaging interactions as well. You can also turn on and change settings remotely from the Family Safety website, which means you can monitor what your kids are doing online from any device you use to get online.

The added functions of Windows Live Family Safety are great if you’re super-concerned about what your kids are doing online. The reporting feature might appeal to some parents who want to keep track of their kids’ activities. As I evaluated the product, I could see the benefit but was bugged by the continual pull back to the website. Part of Web security in my household means having control over when I choose to use the Web, and Windows Live Family Safety pulled me online a little more often than I like.

Parental controls and parental goals

Parents’ expectations for acceptable child behavior can vary widely. As a relatively open-minded mom, I’m sensitive to the concept of control. When our children are young, it makes perfect sense to me to set parameters so they can’t inadvertently get into trouble online.

But as kids get older (usually in their upper teens), we want them to be well informed about online risks, so that over time, they’re making more of their own decisions. Our kids will eventually have to rely completely on their own assessments of online risk, so they need to understand why certain sites or ads or groups are worth staying away from.

Toward that end, parents need to make sure their kids understand why the controls are in place; they must be willing to renegotiate at some point to let the kids have increasing freedom and responsibility.

Ultimately, we want our kids to be smart, independent, and responsible for their actions — whether or not we enforce parental controls on our computers.

Feedback welcome: Have a question or comment about this story? Post your thoughts, praise, or constructive criticisms in the WS Columns forum.

Katherine Murray is the author of Microsoft Office 2010 Plain & Simple (Microsoft Press, 2010), Microsoft Word 2010 Plain & Simple (Microsoft Press, 2010), and Microsoft Word 2010 Inside Out (Microsoft Press, 2010).
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Katherine Murray

About Katherine Murray

Katherine Murray is the author of My Windows 8.1 (Que, 2013), Microsoft Office 2013 Plain & Simple (Microsoft Press, 2013), My Evernote (Que, 2012), and other non-fiction books on business, parenting, and Earth-care topics. She also coauthored, with Woody Leonhard, Green Home Computing for Dummies (Wiley 2009), and she writes and tweets (@kmurray230) about green-tech, wellness, and other social issues.