I can only blame myself. I wanted my children to like my Macs. When they were learning to read, I bought the educational storybooks on CD-ROM such as Dr. Seuss’s ABC and Escape of Marvin the Ape.
When they had trouble with math, I sent them on Math Blaster missions.
When Toy Story came out, I got the activity CD-ROM. When they wanted to draw, I slapped on Disney’s Magic Artist.
When they demanded dinosaurs, I gave them Dinosaur 3-D and Nanosaur. I admit it, I was a devil, tempting, tempting,, tempting. Learn to love my Mac the way I do!
It worked. They love my Mac. They want my Mac. And they won’t give it back!
My two boys have grown up. One is a bonafide teenager of fourteen, and mad into the virtual spaces they ‘hang out’ at, such as bebo.com and myspace.com. The ten-year old is into something called dofus, a fantasy virtual world.
A year ago, they could not care less about my Mac; they were heads-and-tails into Playstation. But then the word spread about those wonderful virtual worlds ‘out there’ on the Internet. And faster than Captain Kirk could get into Warp Drive, they were sitting in my chair, using my broadband connection, on my Mac mini!
It’s no use playing the big bad bear. These two ain’t Goldilocks. They’re too big to budge, and very, very good at turning a deaf ear. “Uh-huh. Yeah. Yeah. Sure. In a minute. In a minute.”
I was ignored and boxed out. Of course, this means war.
One excellent solution, especially for multi-Mac households, is to get a second computer for the kids. Preferably a laptop they can move around the place with, with an Airport card. Install Airport Extreme, and away they go.
I, unfortunately, only have one Mac mini (I have an old iBook too, which lacks an Airport card), with one broadband connection, in one office. I have no problem with sharing the computer. But I did wish to administer it, and allocate the time fairly.
The first step was creating two more accounts, one for each boy. They were delighted with this: their very own account! I then assigned the applications they were eligible to use. It took some trial and error.
I didn’t realize that giving them ‘Finder and System’ gave them carte blanche to most applications. When they realized that I had set parental controls on Safari, they quickly discovered they could use Firefox or Camino! If there was a workaround, they found it.
A bit of censorship was important, but my primary concern was getting the use of my own computer back, without emotional disruption. I needed an app that would play Big Brother, watching everything they do, how much time they spent at it, and then when their time was up, kick them off!
It took some searching. There are dozens and dozens of parental control apps out there, but they are all designed for censoring content, not limiting time.
Then I spotted two solutions: Watcher 3.4 by Alorsoft, and Mac Minder 2 by Lumacode.
Watcher does exactly what it says on the tin. It watches. Choose the volume you wish to watch. Choose the user. Enable watching. Then set how much ‘credit’ you want to give the user. You can set an overall credit amount for the day, ie, two hours. Then you can assign the credit (minutes), for each application.
Perhaps an hour for Safari, leaving a remaining hour for iTunes or iPhoto or ComicLife, whatever they want. Or you can leave the apps ‘unwatched’.
The time can be allocated can be minutes or hours, per a choice of day, week, or month. You also have the option to allow unused credit to be carried over to the next period. Or just leave it as a strict set time each day, as I do.
The statistics reported are simplistic, giving the amount of time used on the volume for the day, and the past 7 and 30 day periods. You can get the same stats by clicking on each app, but that is rather tedious.
After the time is used up for the day, Watcher gives a one minute warning to the user. This is usually the time I hear the shout: “Dad! Can I get more time?” Then Watcher logs the user out. And it won’t let him log back in.
Mac Minder does much the same, but has more bells and whistles. It, too, can limit the time on each application, and overall computer time as well. But it also allows for complex scheduling. Want to only allow computer time between 4 and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday? Anytime on a Saturday? And only an hour in the morning on Sunday?
Mac Minder allows you to schedule all of this. Watcher only gives a minute warning before logging off the user. Mac Minder lets you choose how much warning the user gets. Mac Minder also gives an option letting the user save his work before logging him off. You can also customize the warning.
Mac Minder is the better time watcher application. It has one limitation. It allocates per day only. Watcher does allow for weekly and monthly allocations, even if it has no scheduler.
The price of each reflects its functionality: simple, but effective Watcher is $10.00. Sophisticated Mac Minder is $29.95. For my simple home needs, Watcher is sufficient. However, in educational or lab situations, Mac Minder’s scheduling could be far more valuable.
Watcher and Mac Minder do a good job of limiting computer time. But they don’t limit where your children are surfing. That would require a content filtering app, or good old-fashioned parental diligence! How does your computer watch what your kids are doing?