Vista has built-in parental controls that do certain chores very well. Parents can filter web sites, monitor web surfing and other computer activity, and limit what programs and games can be run. Vista also makes it easy to limit a child’s use of the computer to certain times of the day; the computer will only allow the child to log in between noon and 8pm, say, and locks up for the night at the end of the assigned time.

It’s surprisingly difficult to add the feature that I would expect to find at the top of a parent’s list: the ability to limit a child’s use of the computer to a certain number of hours per day. “You can sit at the computer for two hours a day during the summer, but that’s it!”

The best software I can find is ComputerTime, $30 for one computer, $40 for multiple computers. It’s straightforward and effective. The computer is locked, displaying a mildly unattractive screen, until someone logs in to ComputerTime. A timer starts counting down the assigned time; the timer pauses if the child logs out or the screen saver starts. When the child has accumulated the allowed amount of time, the ComputerTime screen returns and the computer is locked until the next day. It’s possible to set daily, weekly or monthly time limits; each computer can be set up for multiple users. It also can enforce time-of-day restrictions.

There’s one extra trick that’s cute – the program allows a list of codes to be printed out, each one a “token” representing extra time to use the computer. Tokens can then be used as incentives or gifts.

That’s all ComputerTime does. It ignores Windows login names and passwords and has no networking ability to prevent kids from moving from one computer to another for more time. In many homes, though, it may be enough for many parents to make their monitoring go a little more smoothly.

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