Windows 7 Feature Focus
Parental Controls and Family Safety

Note: Parts of this article were excerpted from Windows 7 Secrets Chapter 8, User Accounts and UAC. --Paul

In Windows Vista, Microsoft first offered parental controls that can be applied to your children's accounts to keep them away from the bad stuff online and off, and give you peace of mind that was previously lacking when the kids got on a computer. As in Windows Vista, Windows 7's parental controls are available on a per-user basis. And they're augmented by a richer set of functionality through the optional Windows Live Family Safety.

Tip: The parental controls functionality in Windows 7 is not available if your system is configured to access an Active Directory (AD)-based domain. That is, they are designed for workgroup-style networking only.

Built-in parental controls

To set up parental controls, you first need to configure one or more user accounts as standard user accounts; these are the accounts that your children will use.

Secret: Parental controls cannot be applied to an administrator-class account. They can be applied only to standard users. In addition, there?s another limitation. While it?s technically possible to configure parental controls on a system in which one or more administrators do not have passwords, doing so would be folly. Parental controls rely on the controlled accounts (your kids' accounts) not having access to administrator accounts. If one or more administrator-class accounts do not have passwords, your kids will be able to bypass any controls you set up. Thus, be sure that any administrator-class accounts on the PC have passwords.


Then, from an administrator account, you can configure parental controls. To do so, just type parental in Start Menu Search to locate and access the parental controls application. Then select the user to which you?d like to add parental controls. This will display the User Controls window.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Parental Controls

You will most likely see a message in the parental controls control panel stating that web filtering and activity reporting are not available on this computer. In Windows Vista, these features were part of the built-in parental controls functionality. But in Windows 7, these features are now part of Windows Live Family Safety, which you must install and configure separately, as described below.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Parental Controls

You can configure parental controls on only one account at a time. If you have three children to whom you'd like to apply identical parental controls, unfortunately you will have to repeat these steps for each of your children?s accounts.

Time limits

The Time Restrictions parental control provides a graphical grid that enables you to configure exactly when your kids can use the computer. By default Windows 7 users can use the PC on any day at any time, but by dragging your mouse around the grid you can prevent your children from using the computer at specific hours, such as late at night or during school hours.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Parental Controls

Games

The Game Restrictions parental control specifies whether your children can play games on the PC and, if so, which games they can access. By default standard account holders can play all games. Of course, you can fine-tune that setting using the screen shown here, which appears when you click Set game ratings.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Parental Controls

Here you can set acceptable game ratings using the rating system enabled on your PC. The most common and default system (regardless of where you are in the world) is the Entertainment Software Ratings Board?s (ESRB). Additionally, you can block games based on content, using a surprising range of content types, including unrated online games, alcohol and tobacco reference, alcohol reference, animated blood, blood, blood and gore, cartoon violence, comic mischief, crude humor, drug and alcohol reference, drug and tobacco reference, drug reference, edutainment, fantasy violence, and about 200 others. It?s a long list.

Finally, you can also block or allow specific games, which is surprisingly helpful because many Windows games do not digitally identify their rating. The nice thing about this UI, shown below, is that parental controls sees which games are already installed on the system and enables you to supply a Caesar-style yea or nay.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Parental Controls

Allow and block specific programs

This final setting lets you manually specify applications that you do or do not want your child to use. By default standard users can access all of the applications installed on the system. However, using the interface shown here, it?s possible to fine-tune what?s allowed. If you don?t see an application in the list, click Browse to find it.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Parental Controls

Windows Live Family Safety

Windows Live Family Safety is a cloud-based service that extends the parental controls that are native to Windows 7 with a variety of web, email, and instant messaging protections aimed at keeping your children safe online. Windows Live Family Safety is installed as part of Windows Live Essentials, which can be found on Microsoft's web site.

Note: Windows Live Family Safety has changed pretty dramatically, and for the better, in the latest (2011) version of Windows Live Essentials. For this reason, that is the version I'll be covering here.

Configuring Windows Live Family Safety

When you install Windows Live Family Safety, you'll see it appear as the default entry under Additional Controls in the Parental Controls control panel. However, to start and configure this functionality, you must locate the Family Safety executable. As always, Start Menu Search is your friend: Type family to find it, then logon to your Windows Live account. The Family Safety application will appear

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Parental Controls

Select one or more accounts to monitor. Each monitored account must be linked to a Family Safety member name associated with your Live ID. In previous versions of Windows Live Family Safety, each of these members had to be a specially configured Windows Live account, though that is no longer required. (However, if you prefer to set it up that way, or are upgrading, it's still possible.)

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Parental Controls

Once Family Safety is set up for the (childrens') user accounts you wish to monitor, you can further configure each of its supported features--including web filtering, activity monitoring, and more--on the Family Safety web site.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Parental Controls

Web filtering

Family Safety's web filtering capabilities help you determine which kinds of web sites each child can visit, using a plain English scale that goes from "allow list only"--where only those sites added to a white list will work--to "warn on adult," where all web sites are allowed but suspected adult sites will trigger a warning. You can also independently determine whether each child can download files from the web.

Regardless of which filter level you choose, you can add specific web sites (like facebook.com) to the web filtering list, and either allow (white list) or block (black list) each. Children that run afoul of unapproved site can send their parents requests, via Messenger or email.

Activity monitoring

Using Family Safety's activity monitoring functionality, you can monitor your children's behavior online, seeing which web sites they visit, which applications they run, when and how long they were online, and so own.

Contacts management

If you configure a child's account to use a Windows Live ID, which is a bit more complicated than the default set-up, you can optionally control who your child chats with (via Windows Live Messenger) and shares email with (via Hotmail). (As with web filtering, children must send their parents requests, via Messenger or email, before contacts are approved.

Parental controls integration

Family Safety also takes over for Windows 7's built-in parental controls, so you can configure those features via any web browser on any PC, instead of requiring you to physically logon to the same computer, as you would in the base configuration. These features include the time limits, game restrictions, and program restrictions discussed above. The web-based interfaces for these features work similarly to the local Parental Controls application.

But wait, there's more...

There's much more going on with Windows 7 user accounts, but you'll have to check out Windows 7 Secrets for the rest, including understanding the different account types, using User Account Control to protect your system, and more. The book is available now from Amazon.com and other booksellers. Click here to find out more about Windows 7 Secrets.