A Teenager-Proof PC?

by Andy Turner
Coastal Computers & Design

I’ve been there – brought up two teenage sons through the (admittedly early) computer years and had the same frustrations with them mucking up the family computer. Reading them the riot act about ‘not going to those kind of websites or else’ etc worked for a while, but they soon get into the sneaky stage where they’ll look you in the eye and say “NO Dad, I didn’t do that – honest” Yeah sure. I must have left my tools out in the rain too…

Now we are in the XP / Vista age and, in theory at least, we should be able to make it harder for the click-happy little fiends to be controlled. You’d think so wouldn’t you? The trouble is that we fall for the hype from the anti-virus vendors who tell us that all we need to do is buy their wonderful products and all will be well! The truth is that kids and teens don’t bother with system warnings. They work their feverish way around the desktop with such speed that saying the “Are you sure you should do that?” warning is too late by the time you get the words out…

Ok, want to know if there’s an answer? Yes. Not but not a simple, just install this program and all will be well kind of answer though, it’s more of a get your system setup from scratch with all the safeguards in place and let them know what they can and can’t do kind of answer. It works – I’ve been testing it for some time now and I am confident that it’s just about 95% “teenager-proof” – if there is ever such a thing. It’s damn close anyway!

Here’s the basics of what to do – bear in mind that this is technical, geeky kind of information and if you aren’t confident with doing this kind of thing, maybe give me a call and get me to do it for you.

1. Backup all the important information, files, pictures, music, emails etc that you want to keep as the process involves starting from scratch with a clean installation of Windows XP on a separate partition. This is because you will need to wipe the drive clean to make a new partition for WinXP.

2.  Put the Windows XP CD in the drive and delete the partition where WinXP and everything lives. Then create a new partition – but NOT using all available space. Create one at least 20Gb in size (30-40Gb is best if your drive is big enough), then install a fresh copy of Windows in there. You should be left with at least 20-140Gb of free space that we will use to make a ‘DATA’ drive later for all your files. I wouldn’t worry too much if you don’t have much space free for this partition. A 640Gb external USB drive is only around $150 these days and gives enough space for everyone’s files.

3. After installing XP and all the drivers necessary and creating the new DATA partition (do this from the Control Panel – Administrative Tools – Disk Management) you then get to the fun part – using Microsoft ‘SteadyState‘ to create new users and lock then down nice and tight so they can only do whatever you let them do.

4. Finally, after testing everything is working as it should – you turn on disk protection. This is the clever part of the whole excercise and means that even if a malicious person (or particularly stupid one) selects the Windows directory and presses ‘Delete’ and then turns the power off – THE COMPUTER WILL RESTART AS IF NOTHING HAD HAPPENED. Disk protection is a clever piece of programming from Microsoft (probably the only clever thing they’ve done since XP – don’t get me started on Vista…) that prevents any permanent changes to be made to the Windows partition unless you turn it off temporarily or otherwise.

I don’t even bother with an antivirus program usually – if the system gets infected a restart will wipe it out anyway!

Now, I’ve made it sound simple – it isn’t.
You can expect to have some problems with setting it all up. I find the average system setup doing this kind of thing takes around 2-3 times as long as a standard XP installation. Is it worth doing? Absolutely. Especially if the PC is a ‘family’ computer that you want to use especially for business (heaven-forbid, but some parents do this). If you have a separate ‘kids PC’ that you don’t mind too much if they screw it up and then get them to pay for the repair bills out of their pocket money (yeah right!) then it might be too much trouble – or not, depending on how important the PC is to them. They may have convinced you that they “NEED IT TONIGHT FOR HOMEWORK. PLEEEAAASSSEE GET IT FIXED!!!” – instead of mindless chatting to friends for hours about nothing or finding porn or downloading music…
Sorry if I sound cynical, but I’ve been there, done that!

Is it painless? Yes and no. You have to learn a slightly different way of doing things – like not expecting that passwords will be saved all the time and using creative ways to save internet Favourites etc, but there are ways around the problems, different software you can use to achieve the same outcome. I’m a big fan of ‘standalone apps’ myself (try this site for some ideas). These clever pieces of software don’t need to worm themselves deeply into the Windows Registry – just put them into a folder for themselves to work in on your DATA drive (or even a USB thumb drive) and they are happy. An unexpected benefit of them is that you can say, take your email with you on a thumbdrive and access it wherever in the world you go. The whole process gets you more organised too – I find that customers get used to saving their photos straight onto the external hard drive instead of the My Pictures folder. You can set it up so that everyone has their own partition on an external drive and if they fill it up – tough, tell them to go buy themselves another one!

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