Windows 10 features yet another revamp to Microsoft’s parental controls functionality. This time around, there are some controversial changes, including a requirement that children use a Microsoft account instead of a local account. The good news? There are valid reasons for the changes. Here’s what’s happening.
A full retelling of the various Microsoft parental controls solutions over the past decade would require more time or energy than I have. Suffice to say that there are in-OS elements that have shipped as part of various Windows (and Windows phone) versions, as well as online services pieces.
In the Windows 8 generation, this functionality was called Family Safety and while you could create child accounts in Windows, and choose between local and Microsoft accounts, for the first time you managed them in the cloud. Basic features included activity reporting, web filtering, time limits, app restrictions, Windows Store app and game restrictions, and approval requests for web sites, apps and games.
With Windows 10, this overall solution has been rebranded as Microsoft Family. And it’s changed a lot, both in Windows 10 and online. Before getting to the changes—I am documenting how to actually use Microsoft Family in Windows 10 Field Guide—let’s examine why Microsoft changed parental controls.
There are a number of reasons.
No one was using parental controls. Not literally no one, of course, but very few people.
Those who were using parental controls often worked around the system. They would configure local accounts for their kids because they didn’t want them using email, for example. And most child accounts were configured with the wrong age for the child, though it’s unclear why.
There wasn’t any way to share services across a family. Microsoft didn’t offer any shared family construct, such as Xbox family or Windows family programs, that spread the value of subscriptions and other offers out to multiple family members.
There was no account roaming. Parents had to set up an account for each child on each PC or device manually.
There were too many financial restrictions. Microsoft didn’t offer shared entitlement programs or a consolidated view of transactions against family accounts.
The cross-product story was a mess. Features worked inconsistently if at all across Microsoft’s various platforms, like Windows 8/RT, Windows 7, Windows Phone 8, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. The story was particularly bad on phone and Xbox.
With these problems in mind, Microsoft found that parents expect to shared licensed content and services within their families. They want to balance autonomy and safety for their older kids while being able to easily create a safe place for younger kids. And kids want their own stuff: a child’s PC or device should feel like its theirs.
Microsoft Family is the result of all this learning. It creates a single family construct that works across Windows PCs, tablets and phones. It has roaming child accounts, meaning that just signing in on a new PC or device automatically applies all of the previously-established parental controls. You can configure more than two adults. There is a consolidated transaction history that is viewable only by adults. You can easily add and remove family members, from a PC or device, or the web. And there are now smarter defaults: there is an activity reporting notification the first time a child signs in and then again every 30 days, Store doesn’t allow kids to download content above their age rating, adult websites are blocked (and kids can request exceptions from their parents), and Cortana is not enabled for kids under 13.
You can manage Microsoft Family users from the web at account.microsoft.com/family or from a Windows 10-based PC in Settings (just navigate to Accounts, Family & Other Users. Since you’re signed in with the same (parental) Microsoft account in both places, you’ll see the same information, and if you add or change a child or adult user on the web, you’ll see the changes appears in Windows almost immediately (and vice versa).
The controversial change here is that child accounts can only be Microsoft accounts: you can no longer configure a local account for a child (at least not one that is managed by Microsoft Family). But if you look over the list of improvements in this version, you can see why. Roaming—the ability to just sign-in and have all your carefully-crafted parental controls apply automatically—isn’t possible with a local account, so it’s now much easier for kids to use multiple PCs and devices in your home. Which, let’s face it, is the norm today. (You can also exclude your kids from your PCs as you see fit, of course. And kids will not be able to sign-in to domain-joined PCs, period.) Indeed, virtually all of the changes are designed around the inevitability—the requirement—of a Microsoft account.
From a Windows 10-based PC, you can add and remove child and adult accounts from a family, but that’s about it. When you add a person to the family, an invitation is sent to that person’s email account, and they must accept it to join. (They can also leave the family, if they wish, from the web site.) After they’ve accepted your offer, they can sign-in to any PC on which you’ve signed in with your Microsoft account unless you block that access. And if you wish, you can change a child account from a Standard account to an Administrator account.
Everything else happens on the web. There, you can view recent activity—the last seven days of activity across Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile devices—providing a thorough look at your childrens’ screen time, web site visits (only available on “big” Windows at the moment), app and game usage, and more. But you can also manage the settings for each child user.
These settings include such things enabling activity reporting on Windows PCs (and Windows 10 Mobile phones), web site blocking, app and game blocking, and screen time. In other words, the same basic functionality that was available before.
Will these changes result in better adoption for this important security technology? Perhaps. There are questions around support for legacy platforms—Windows 7/8.x, Windows phone 8.1, and Xbox 360 especially—and I’ve not discovered what Microsoft plans to do for Xbox One. And even Windows 10 Mobile is a bit of an unknown since the builds we have access to now still support Kid’s Corner and don’t have any sense of multi-user sign-ins.
So we’ll see how things evolve. But as far as Windows 10 goes, I realize the Microsoft account requirement will be troubling to some parents. But if you set up your child accounts appropriately, Microsoft’s approach seems reasonable, especially if the multi-PC/device thing seems attractive, which I think it will, increasingly. Anyway, that was the thinking behind this functionality.
Tagged with Microsoft Family