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Summertime, and the Computing Is Easy

By Joseph Moran

Summer is almost upon us. School is out (or soon will be), which means most kids have a lot more free time on their hands. If you're concerned about yours spending too much of that time with the computer — or about what they're doing while using it — the parental controls built into Windows Vista may be part of the solution.

The parental-control feature is available in both Home Basic and Home Premium editions. With it, you can limit computer usage, block access to certain Web sites, prevent file downloads and prevent certain programs from running. You can even restrict the types of games that can be played based on their ESRB (Entertainment Software Review Board) ratings.

To use Vista's parental controls, you must set up an individual account in advance for each person whose access you want to restrict. You can apply parental controls only to Standard user accounts, not to Computer Administrator accounts or the Guest account. In fact, you'll want to turn the Guest account off. Since it can't be password protected, it could be used to circumvent restrictions placed on other accounts.

To set up parental controls, log on to the Vista system as an Administrator, then click the Start button, select Control Panel, and choose Parental Controls. As a shortcut, you can just start typing the word "Parental" into the Start Search box, and Vista will find it for you. If you have UAC (User Access Control) enabled — which is the default — Vista will ask permission before launching.

When you select the user account for which to set up parental controls, you'll be presented with a number of options. For starters, make sure that under Parental Controls the On, enforce current settings option is selected. If you want the option to monitor the account usage via activity reports, under Activity Reporting select On, collect information about computer usage. Now click Windows Vista Web Filter to set up Web restrictions.

Block Sites by Name or Type

If you just want to block access to one or a handful or particular sites, click Edit the Allow and Block list. Then, one at a time, type in the addresses of the sites you want to block and click Block to add them to the blocked sites list. (Check for typos so you can be sure you're blocking the intended sites.) An alternative to blocking sites (albeit much more restrictive) is to set up a list of allowed sites, and then check Only Allow Web Sites on the allow list.

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For more comprehensive Web access restrictions, you can choose to block sites by category based on type of content. Under Block content automatically, you can apply High, Medium or Custom content filters; click on a setting to view which content categories will be blocked, or choose Custom to individually select from among relevant content types. You can also check the Block File Downloads box to prevent someone from downloading files irrespective of which site they're from.

Bear in mind that Vista's Web content filters are based on a database of sites, and since category labels are somewhat subjective, the filtering feature isn't foolproof. Therefore, newer sites that haven't yet been added to the database won't be blocked, nor might some whose categories don't fall cleanly into the ones filtered.

Incidentally, any time someone tries to visit a blocked site, you have the option of overriding the block by entering your administrative password. When you do this, you'll have the choice of adding the site to the allowed list or overriding the block on a one-time basis.

More Restriction Options

Vista offers other parental control options aside from site blocking and filtering. If you go back to the main User Controls window and choose Time Limits, you'll be able to control how much time is spent on the computer — just click and drag on the grid provided to indicate when access will and will not be allowed.

With the Games option, you can dictate whether or not the user can play games, limit games based on ESRB rating, or prevent the playing of unrated games. You also can limit games further based on dozens of specific game characteristics like language, violence or sexual themes.

Last but not least, you can use the Allow and Block Specific Programs option to, well, do exactly that. This option can be used to prevent access to any program installed on your system, although it's not especially user friendly because it makes you wade through an exhaustive list of programs — often with less than straightforward descriptions — to find the ones you want.

Activity Reports

If you've configured parental controls to monitor user activity, Vista will remind you to read the activity reports once a week. If you'd prefer a daily reminder, return to the initial screen Parental Controls window and click Family Safety Options. You can turn off activity report reminders here as well. View a report any time by clicking View Activity Reports from the User Controls window — the report will show which Web sites were recently visited and blocked.

Unlike Vista (or Mac OS X, for that matter), Windows XP doesn't come with parental controls built-in. Microsoft offers an add-on component that has some of the same features. It's a free download, although to use it you'll need to sign members of your household up for Windows Live IDs.

Joseph Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.
For more help, check out the PracticallyNetworked Forums.

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