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Learn How Your Child Is Using Screen Time

by Sarah Dobson on October 19, 2020

Your child is spending a lot of time on the Mac, and they say it’s mostly homework, but are you sure they're telling the truth? And, if not, are you concerned about what they might be doing? The Mac’s Parental Controls log can help you check.

(If you haven’t yet turned on Parental Controls, we have two articles for you: start with How to Keep Your Kids from Running Amok on Your Mac, and then go deeper with the Parental Controls settings in Use the Mac’s Parental Controls to Restrict Computer Use.)

To access the Parental Controls log, work on your child’s computer:

  1. Open System Preferences > Parental Controls.
  2. Click the lock icon at the lower left of the pane, and sign in with your administrator password.
  3. From the list at the left, select your child’s account.
  4. At the lower right of the pane, click the Logs button.

At the top of the Logs dialog, you can choose a timeframe and select whether to view applications used or Web sites visited. For example, you could view application use over the past month.

The log displays a pie chart at the left, and a list of apps or sites on the right. Click a section of the pie chart to select that entry at the right. For any entry, click its disclosure triangle to learn more about it, such as the timestamp for when an app was made active or a Web page was visited. To open an app (so you can see what it’s like) or to view a Web page (so you can see what’s on it), select the app or page, and click the Open button.

If you’ve restricted app or Web site usage—which you do in the main Parental Controls preference pane, on the Apps tab or the Web tab, respectively—when you view the log, you can narrow your restrictions by selecting an app or site, and then clicking the Restrict button. If you change your mind, select the app or site again and click Allow.

We’ve found that the Web log is not always helpful. For example, launching a Web-connected application often loads several Web pages, but the Web site name isn’t always the same as the app. For example, the demo version of Minecraft loads six Web sites (consisting of YouTube, three sites with mojang in the domain name—Mojang is the original developer of Minecraft—one site with minecraft in the domain name, and one with just an IP address). In addition, in our testing, some sites—including Wikipedia and Khan Academy—never appeared in the log or appeared as Unknown and would not load when we clicked Open.

So, use this log as the blunt tool that it is. It may provide you with an idea of what your child is up to, but if it doesn’t—and you’re worried—you’ll have to resort to other parenting techniques, like placing the Mac in a common area of your home or turning on more restrictive Web site controls.

One tip: Logging is more accurate if your child’s account sleeps when it is inactive. For example, if your child leaves YouTube active for 30 minutes while eating dinner, the log will record 30 extra minutes. But if the Mac sleeps after 5 minutes of inactivity, the log will record only 5 extra minutes of YouTube. Turning on sleep also saves energy. To set up Sleep, in the child’s account, go to System Preferences > Energy Saver. Move the slider to an appropriate amount of time, and if it is present, deselect the checkbox labeled “Prevent computer from sleeping automatically when the display is off.” For a laptop, the Energy Saver pane has two sub-panes, Battery and Power Adapter—specify sleep settings in both.

Checking the Parental Controls log won’t prevent problematic computer use, but it does let you take a trust-but-verify stance toward how your children spend their screen time. In fact, your children may clean up their computer use once they realize that everything they do is being logged!

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