There has always been a need for parents to control how long their kids spend time on their computer. Now more than ever, it’s imperative that parents be also able to control not just how long their kids spent time in front of the computer but also what they do on that computer as well once they are on it. This is particularly the case when it comes to controlling what websites they are allowed to visit or not. A while back, I wrote about a simple method about how parents can leverage a built-in feature inside Microsoft Windows to create a schedule of allowing when or when not their kids are able to log on to the computer. That method satisfied some parents but many wanted something more granular. One big request is not just being able to create a pre-defined scheduled of log-in or log-off times but creating a computer ‘use quota’ instead. This makes much more sense for many because some parents don’t care when exactly their kids use the computer but so long as they don’t reach the 4 hour maximum usage per day. Windows didn’t allow this kind of granularity but luckily, a freeware utility provides us with this capability. I mentioned it at the end in the comment area but didn’t actually get a chance to fully test it until now. You’ll be surprised at how this free utility can save you tons of headache when dealing with your kids and the home computer.
Romaco Timeout’s the name and keeping your children safe is the game. OK, that was pretty lame but you won’t be saying that of the utility once you try it out! When I first tried Romaco Timeout (RT), I remembered it being able to just specify a usage quota on a user account. With the new version, you are able to do much more such as specifying websites and programs to be blocked from access and monitoring web usage.You can download Romaco Timeout from here.
Installing RT is your standards ordeal. Just keep hitting Next until the program gets installed.RT works on a per-user account basis. In order to use RT to apply the restrictions, you’ll need to log into your child’s user account and then set up the quota and limitations. Once its set, you RT by default will automatically start each and every time your child logs on.
When you first start up RT for the first time, you will asked to create a password. This is a very important step because this password is used to unlock and control the settings of the utility. You need to create a strong password and one that your kids will not be easily able to guess. For example, please do not use your favorite food as the password because your kids will most likely already know that! RT does not have a password lockout so your kids will be able to use an infinite amount of guesses to try and crack your password!
Once the password has been created, you’ll then be greeted with RT’s main interface. It might look a little daunting at first but it’s really easy to use. Also, you can skip the features you don’t want to use. For example, you can easily just use RT to create a list of websites to block while not configuring a usage quota at all! That would be a waste of the utility but you get the point.RT is a program as with any program, it will have a process running. The neat thing about RT is that even if your child ends the process within Task Manager, the application will start right back up after a second or two!
Daily Quota Timer
OK, so the main feature of RT is allowing you the parent, to configure a use quota timer on your kids account. For example, if you only want your kids to be able to use the computer any time of the day but restrict their total daily time usage to a maximum of 4-hours, you would set a 4 hour quota limit. If your child first uses the computer for an hour then logs off, then they would only have 3 hours left for the day. If they log back in the computer 2 hours later and uses the computer for another hour, then their limit would then be down to 2 hours. Once they reach their quota limit for the day, you can configure the computer to log off and your child will not be able to log in again (sort of, continue reading below to see what I mean) until the quota limit resets, which usually happens at midnight.
In RT, click on the Daily Quota Timer tab. At first, everything will be greyed out. In order to customize any of the options within RT, you need to enable the the utility first. Do so by simply checking the box at the top that says ‘Enable Timeout’. Here, you can configure quota limits for each day of the week. This allows for granular control. For example, you can specify a maximum of 3 hours total M-F but up the limit to 5 hours on the weekend. Under Action, you can specify what RT will do once the quota has been reached while your child is still logged on. In most cases, you would want the computer to log off but a better choice would be to let your child decide what they would want to do instead. If you select this option, a Pause screen will appear and the only thing your child is then able to do is log off, restart or shutdown the computer and nothing else. The minimum quota time limit per day is 15 minutes and by default, a warning will appear 5 minutes before the quota limit expires.
Once you have the time configured, simply head back to the General tab and make sure under ‘Enabled Modules’, the Daily Quota Timer box is check marked.
The RT icon will then be displayed in the system tray (lower left hand corner). A child can simply mouse over this icon to get a quick glance at how much time they have remaining until their quota expires for the day. The icon will also turn yellow and red in color when the progress reaches 75% and 95%, respectively. After the quota expires, the user will still be able to log in but because RT is configured by default to start automatically when a user is logged in, it immediately knows that the quota has expired and will display a window asking the user to enter in the RT master password. If after 30 seconds no password has been entered, the default Action item you specified will be invoked (log off, shutdown, hibernate, ask user, etc). Restarting or shutting down the computer has no effect on the quota. Once the child logs back in, RT will continue with the quota countdown right where it left off last time.
Session Time Limit
The Session Time Limit feature of RT allows you to configure a time limit usage per log in session. The countdown begins whenever the user logs in. Once the timer has expired, the Action you specify will be invoked. However, unlike with a quota limit, the session limit is reset whenever the user logs back in to the computer (assuming the default action was to log off) or whenever the computer is restarted. By itself, I really don’t see a point for using this feature because it’s not restrictive at all. You can simply configure the session limit for your child to be 1 hour but after that amount of time has expired, your child can simply re-login to the system and the session timer resets.
Once you have the session time limit configured, simply head back to the General tab and make sure under ‘Enabled Modules’, the Session Time Limit box is check marked.
Once you have the Access Window configured, simply head back to the General tab and make sure under ‘Enabled Modules’, the Access Window box is check marked.
The site blocker feature simply allows you to create a list of websites you do not want your child to visit. More specifically, you are allowed to block certain domains from being accessed. Facebook is a good example or just about any other web domain you don’t want your kid to visit.
As soon as you add an entry here, your anti-virus software should raise an alert. This is normal because for every entry you add here, RT will add an entry into your system’s HOST file. This HOST file is consulted whenever you visit a website to see if you have any manual entries within it and if there is one matching the domain you are visiting, it will honor the setting. Here, RT will simply add the domain you want blacklisted into the HOST file and make it so that it points to the IP address of 127.0.0.1, which is simply pointing it back to your local system. Please make an exception in your antivirus software to allow RT to do its job.
Do NOT enter in a web path such as ‘facebook.com/user/’, or include ‘http://’. Incorrect entries can cause problems with your computer’s networking, so be careful.
Once you have Site Blocker configured, simply head back to the General tab and make sure under ‘Enabled Modules’, the Site Blocker box is check marked.
The program blocker feature allows you to select which applications you do not want your child accessing. Of course, the application you want to block would have to be already pre-installed on the computer for you to select it in RT. You also have to make sure that you select the right program executable. Therefore, always test things afterward by trying to open the application after you have configured the rule in RT. The application should actually open but after a second or two, it would automatically close itself.
Once you have Program Blocker configured, simply head back to the General tab and make sure under ‘Enabled Modules’, the Program Blocker box is check marked.
Web Usage Monitor
The web usage monitor feature is one that will be very much appreciated from parents. It allows you to set a time limit on how long your child can browse the Internet per day. It does so by tracking the time spent when a browser is opened. All major browsers are supported such as Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari, and Internet Explorer. Once the time limit has been reached, you can configure RT to disable the browsers. However, I found that this does not work exactly as advertised for some of the browsers. When the web usage limit has expired and the user has more than one tab open in the browser, the browser itself will not automatically close. Instead, in most cases, it will display a dialog box asking the user if they would like to close all the tabs or just the current tab. The user can simply exit out of this dialog box and continue using the browser. However, the dialog box will reappear very shortly and the user has no choice but to keep exiting out of the box if they want to continue. While the user is still able to use the browser, they will constantly have to close the dialog box which makes browsing very inefficient. Browsers that immediately exit even with multiple tabs open will not have this issue.
Once you have Web Usage Monitor configured, simply head back to the General tab and make sure under ‘Enabled Modules’, the Web Usage Monitor box is check marked.
Options and Misc.
The Options tab allow you to configure a couple of settings relating to RT. You could change your master password, when the warning message will appear, whether RT should automatically be started whenever the user is logged on (recommended), and to changing the wallpaper background on the Pause screen. Other buttons on the bottom of the screen allows you to reset the timer and limit.
Warnings and Notices
It’s easy to rely on a peice of software to help you limit what your child can and cannot do on a computer. However, do realize that nothing is perfect and if your child or whoever it is you are using RT to place limitations upon is tech saavy enough, they might be able to bypass these restrictions. Here are some that I can think of:
- If your child’s user account is an administrator, then he/she can simply create a new Windows user account and continue to use the computer unrestricted. After they are done with it, they can easily just delete the user account and you’ll never be the wiser. Because RT is configured on a per-user basis, the new user account they create will be free from any restrictions you place upon their original user account using RT. Therefore, it is important that your child not be given administrator privileges on the computer!
- A blocked site is one of the easiet restrictions to bypass. Your child can easily just visit a web proxy website and access the restricted site that way. Because there are literally thousands of web proxies out there, it is not possible for you to block every single one of them. An alternative is to use something like OpenDNS to block websites based on categories but again, your child only has to find one proxy server and they will have free reign. Also, don’t forget that blocking websites on the computer is completely useless if your child has a smart phone that can also access the web!
- The program blocker feature can be totally useless because if the program is not already install on the computer, it cannot be blocked. Even if you’ve configured a specific program to be blocked in RT, your child can simply bypass that limitation if they are allowed to install a different version of the program onto the computer.
- As far as web usage monitoring goes, all your child needs to do is find some third-party browser that RT has no knowledge about and they will have bypassed the restrictions. Once again, don’t forget to account for your child’s smart phone if they have one!
- Last but not least, don’t forget that a child can simply bypass RT altogether by simply booting the computer from a Linux rescue disc! This allows them to use the web anyway they see fit and any timer restrictions you put in place will be rendered completely useless.
With all that being said, you still have to give credit to the developer of Romanco Timout. This is one of the only freeware I know of that allows a user/parent to put a time restriction quota on their child’s user account within Windows. For many parents, this is a much needed feature as being able to just configure a schedule of when they can and cannot log in is not enough. The other features it incorporates is an added bonus but I feel that the timeout feature is the star here, hence the name of the utility itself. However, I’ll end this article by saying that you as a parent can never substitute good parenting by simply relying on a piece of software to do the job for you. Who knows what will hapen in the future but for now, you still have to communicate openly with your child and guide them along the way.