A single Mac shared by multiple family members can quickly become hopelessly cluttered with each person's files and apps. You can try to get everyone to follow a few Mac organizational rules, but Apple has a better way for you to bring order to the mayhem.

You can create individual accounts for each family member, where each person can organize their own computing life however they see fit -- without anyone else having to make sense of it. In addition, by creating accounts, you can manage what your kids have access to and can set time limits.

Add users to your Mac

You have a few choices to make when setting up user accounts, including who will be the administrator and whether you want to manage kids' accounts with Parental Controls.

  1. Open System Preferences and click Users & Groups.
  2. Click the lock icon to unlock the preference pane and enter your username and password.
  3. Click the + button below the column of users.
  4. Click the New Account pop-up menu to assign an account type to the new user.
  5. After you set the user type, enter the full name and password for the user, click Create User, and set the user's controls:
  • Administrator manages users, installs software, and changes various settings. The first person to initially set up your Mac is the administrator -- so that's probably you -- but you can create additional admins and change regular users to administrators.
  • Standard users can install software and change settings on their own account but can't fiddle with other users' accounts.
  • Managed with Parental Controls users can access the apps and content you specify. You can set computer-time limits for this type of account. More on this in a bit.
  • Sharing Only is for someone remotely accessing shared files and is probably not a setting you'll use in this situation.
  • Group is handy if you need to set the same privileges for multiple users. It's probably not worth the effort for a small family but can be helpful if you are managing a Von Trapp-sized household.

    Parental Controls

    By turning on Parental Controls on a child's account, you can limit the time your kids spend on your Mac, control which websites they visit, restrict who they can contact through Mail and Game Center, and specify which apps they can use.

    1. Open System Preferences and click Parental Controls.
    2. Click the lock icon to unlock the preference pane and enter your username and password.
    3. Select a user you added in the preceding section, then click Enable Parental Controls. If you need to add another person, click the + button below the column of users and fill in the account information.
    4. Assign Parental Control settings:
    • Apps lets you lock down the built-in camera, limit who your kid can contact, and specify which apps your kid can use.
    • Web lets you set which websites the user can and can't access.
    • Stores lets you restrict access to the iTunes and iBooks Stores and set age-appropriate limits on content.
    • Time lets you set time limits for computer use.
    • Privacy lets you control privacy settings for the user's data.
    • Other is a potpourri of settings -- you can turn off dictation and prevent the user from modifying the Dock, for example.

    Check the logs

    Parents want to think the best of their kids, and you can confirm your belief by viewing computer activity for a user you've set up with Parental Controls.

    1. In the Parental Controls pane of System Preferences, select a user and click Logs.
    2. From the Show activity for pop-up menu, select the period of time you want to view.
    3. Click Applications to see a pie chart of time spent using apps.
    4. Click Web to see a list of websites visited.
    Clifford Colby follows the Mac and Android markets for Download.com. He's been an editor at Peachpit Press and a handful of now-dead computer magazines, including MacWeek, MacUser, and Corporate Computing.