eXtensions - Wednesday 19 October 2016

System Preferences in macOS, Sierra: Parental Controls

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers

Some changes to System Preferences in macOS, Sierra, have been subtle, while other preferences have seen major changes. The preferences pane for Parental Controls provides settings to allow parents and others in control of younger users to limit what can be done, and when. The panel has seen a number of changes in this latest update.

Parental Controls has other uses over and above allowing mothers and fathers to apply any protections they see fit. It may also be used in a school or even an office environment to restrict access to applications and internet use, so may have a wider value if used wisely.

As well as the ability to prevent use of certain applications, limits may be set to: URLs - both specifics and types of sites (including online multiplayer games) - and other forms of access. Logs of activities can be monitored.

There is also the ability to limit the number of hours that an account is used, including beginning and end times. This may help families with those addicted to playing games non-stop. Research suggests that limiting the number of hours each day a young person can access a computer is beneficial (Shields and Behrman, Princeton).

Parental Controls

Parental Controls (which cannot be used with an Administrator account) is off by default. To use the settings, it is necessary to unlock the padlock (bottom left) which will need Administrator privileges. When the preference panel is opened, user accounts can be accessed in a panel to the left.

When an account is selected, the controls can be activated. The panel then displays 6 tabs: Apps, Web, Stores, Time, Privacy and Other. It is also possible to create a new (controlled) user account directly from within the panel with the + icon under the users list

This will add (create) a new account. A simple panel appears asking for Username, Account name and Password (plus Verify) and a password hint. At the top of the panel is an Age button, with options of 4+, 9+, 12+ and 17+. An account is created and the Parental Controls panel appears.

The - (delete) will offer to delete a highlighted account. This is not to turn off Parental Controls. If an active account is deleted, the system offers to save the Home folder as a disk image in the same way as deleting an account in Users & Groups. This delete feature should be used carefully.

The gear icon reveals a menu with shortcuts for actions: settings for one account can be copied and pasted to another; parental controls may be turned off for any specific account; and Allow Remote Setup may also be activated here.

Parental Controls


When a new account is created in this panel, or when applying Parental Controls to an account that has already been created, the first tab (Apps) controls the applications and access to other features. It is in two sections and has been redesigned.

The upper part of the panel displays 4 checkboxes

  • Allow use of camera

  • Allow joining Game Center multiplayer games

  • Limit Mail to allowed contacts - a button alongside marked, Manage, opens a panel which allows a parent to specify those with whom emails can be exchanged; and to set up a monitoring email address should mail be exchanged with any person not so authorised

Parental Controls

  • Limit Applications on this Mac. If this is on, the user in that controlled account may only open specified applications.

    The panel below this is only live when the Limit Applications box is checked. It controls applications that may be used. By checking/unchecking boxes in each of the groups, any or all may be selected or deselected.

A button (available for Apps, as well as for the other tabs) reveals activity logs in the account (see below).


The "Web" section limits a user's access to the World Wide Web. This pane has seen a minor redesign. There are three radio buttons:

  • Allow unrestricted access to websites;
  • Try to limit access to adult websites;
  • Allow access to only these websites.

The second option - for controlling limited access - tries to use recognized content filters. A Customize button reveals a two-section panel that allows the parent to specify sites that may be accessed: Always allow these websites; and Never allow these websites.

Parental Controls

The third option allows access only to specific sites (a "whitelist"). The whitelist already contains a number of sites considered safe, such as the Apple start page, National Geographic, Disney and the Smithsonian Institution.

At the bottom of the panel are + and - icons so that parents may add suitable bookmarks or folders. Any sites on the list may be removed.


The tab marked Stores is a new addition. It controls access to online stores and limits access to purchasing opportunities. At the top is a section marked Disable. The options here are iTunes Store (with a sub-item of iTunes U) and iBook Store. This appears to be in response to problems when children have built up excessive charges in their parents' accounts

A second option, marked Restrict, has five checkboxes:

  • Music with explicit content
  • Movies to (a button controls age groups)
  • TV Shows to (a button controls content restriction types)
  • Apps to (a button controls age groups - the same groups as for user account limits)
  • Books with explicit sexual content.

    Note: the age groups cited for viewing restrictions of Movies, as well as TV, on my computer are specific for the Thai market. These will differ from country to country.

    Parental Controls


    As in earlier versions of Parental Controls, there are three sections to the Time panel: Weekday time limits, Weekend time limits, and Bedtime.

    Parental Controls

    • The Weekday section restricts computer use to a pre-selected number of hours each day if the checkbox is activated. The hours may be adjusted using a slider: from 30 minutes up to 8 hours.

    • The Weekend panel is identical to Weekday, but recognises that Saturday and Sunday are not school days and the child may have more free time, so allows adjustments for these days. The decision is the parent's. As above, the slider runs from 30 minutes up to 8 hours.

    • The Bedtime section prevents access to the computer during certain hours. It is in two sections, selected by checkboxes: School nights (Sunday to Thursday); and Weekend (Friday and Saturday). The defaults may be changed to any times within the 24 hour day.

    As before, this section does not take into account that some cultures do not have a Saturday/Sunday weekend.


    The tab marked Privacy is new and controls what access is given to the user's data from outside. The panel is in two sections, with the first limiting the access that others may have to "Student's data". Below the text explanation, this section has a single button that links to the Privacy section of Security & Privacy preferences.

    Parental Controls

    The lower section of this panel has several checkboxes that will prevent changes (settings and access by apps) to be made to:

  • Location Services - this greyed out and depends on Privacy settings in Security & Privacy
  • Contacts
  • Calendars
  • Reminders
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Diagnostics


    The final pane in Parental Controls now has 6 checkboxes to control access to specific features or functions. Some items have been removed. Others have been added. Wording of those previously available has been changed.

    Parental Controls

    The full list of features is:

    • Turn off Siri & Dictation. Siri is a new feature on Macs, and Dictation had been a separate item on this panel. When this panel is checked, neither feature is available.

    • Disable editing of printers and scanners. This prevents a user adding or removing printers or changing printer settings.

    • Block CD and DVD burning in the Finder prevents the user burning a disk. Not all Macs now have optical drives, but this would alo prevent use of an external burner.

    • Restrict explicit language in Dictionary will limit access to what is called "inappropriate content" found in dictionaries, thesauruses and Wikipedia. This was ON by default.

    • Prevent the Dock from being modified.

    • Use Simple Finder (previously in Apps panel) - a simplified view of the desktop is available for young or inexperienced users.

    Parental Controls - Simple Finder
    Simple Finder in a Protected Account


    A logs button is available at bottom right of all panels. Pressing the button reveals a redesigned panel which has two tabs: Applications and Web. Above these is a button to select the time (history) that is to be checked. Options here are: Today, One Week, One Month, Three Months (default), Six Months, One year, and All.

    The Applications panel is in two parts: a pie-chart to the left, and a list of applications (with colors that correspond to those in the chart). Beside each list item is an access triangle which opens to show information about when the application was used and for how long.

    Parental Controls

    The Web panel showing logs is also in two parts: a pie-chart to the left, and a list of sites accessed (with colors that correspond to those in the chart). As with the Applications section, beside each list item is an access triangle which opens to show information about when the application was used and for how long.

    Parental Controls


    Recently Lori Gil on iMore wrote a lengthy article on the use of Parental Controls on Macs. Readers might also want to have a look at her explanation of this part of System Preferences.

    While the internet has developed into a rich resource of news, research sources and information, it also has risks for the same young users who could benefit most from its use. Some parents are concerned about what their offspring are viewing and who they are in contact with.

    We are reminded of the Peter Steiner cartoon from New Yorker, "On the Internet nobody knows you're a dog." There have been other, more recent reminders (such as the movie, Trust) of how at risk young people can be, as well as many real-life reports, although recent revelations suggest users may have more to fear from certain governments.

    While parents should work with the very young in their online discoveries, those who are older value their independence and privacy. They can feel inhibited and resentful if they sense that they are under observation. Parents have to perform a balancing act between that freedom and the protection needed.

    The big bad wolf is real.

    See Also:

    Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. He is now continuing that in the Bangkok Post supplement, Life. He can be followed on Twitter (@extensions_th)

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