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Protect your home computer

Two options for providing your child with their own computer

Over the years I've had to fix a great number of family home computers that have become infected with computer viruses, malware or have so much adware and web browser add-ons installed that the computer became unusable.

The main reason this happens is that everyone with access to the computer logs in using the same username and password and therefore anything they do on the computer affects all users.

For the purposes of this article I am therefore assuming that the family computer is a Microsoft Windows based PC, the most common operating system in use today.

Once the computer has been fixed I'm often asked if there is any way of stopping this from happening again. Explaining UAC, the Administrator account, user account privileges etc usually causes the eyes to glaze over so instead I have suggested two alternatives, one that costs nothing but everyone still shares the same physical computer. The other costs around the price of a case of beer, assuming your home computer is a desktop computer and you therefore already have a USB mouse, keyboard and a monitor. Otherwise you will need to spend a little more to obtain these items.

Solution one a Virtual computer

First, change the login password on your computer and don't tell your children the new password. Feel free to tell your partner of course. The plan is that when the children need to use the computer you must log them in.

The next step is to create them their own "virtual" computer inside of your computer. Think of it as a sandbox. They can surf the web, go on Facebook, and do whatever else you have given them permission to do on the internet, and it cannot hurt your computer. Unless of course they drop out of the virtual computer back into the parent computer, but I'm sure you will explain that their computer use is now restricted to their own virtual computer. That is if they want to be able to access the internet in future.

The virtualisation software we are going to use is VMware Player, which you can download for free from here: VMware Player. Download and install it onto your computer.

Next we will need an operating system for our virtual computer to run. Your family computer is probably running a version of Microsoft Windows and virtual computers can also run Windows but not for free. Instead I recommend a free operating system called Linux. There are many different versions of Linux and you can get a list from the distro watch website. I can recommend Mint, Ubuntu or Fedora.

Download a copy of your chosen operating system. It comes in an .ISO file format which is a CD/DVD image file.

Start VMware Player and select the icon to create a new virtual machine. Select the location of your ISO file and select next. Give it a name such as "Judys PC" or the name of your child that you are creating the virtual computer for. Enter a username and password and select next. Give the virtual machine a name such as "JudyPC" and select next. Choose how much of your hard drive space you want to give to the virtual computer and click next.

Next click Customise Hardware. Here you can specify what hardware available on the real computer will be shared with the virtual one. Remove floppy if your computer does not have a floppy drive. Also remove printer if you do not wish to allow your child to use the printer. Make sure the Network Adapter is set to NAT. This gives them an extra level of protection as the family PC will act as a basic firewall. You can give them as much memory and CPUs as you like, as long as you don't exceed the amount that your family PC has to offer. I recommend about 50 80%. Click close then Finish.

VMware Player will now install the operating system. Follow the instructions to complete the installation.

Once complete, shutdown the virtual computer. In VMware Player select the virtual computer and select the icon to edit the virtual machine settings. Select CD/DVD (IDE) and select Use physical drive. Your child can now use the CD/DVD drive in your computer from within their virtual computer. Make sure that the option Connect at power on is selected. Select OK to exit.

You now have a virtual computer installed on your family PC. Now every time your child wishes to use a computer or would like to access the internet you can log them into their own virtual computer. This is their own sandbox where whatever they do there won't affect the parent computer. Just make sure that they stay in their virtual computer and do not jump out to perform actions on the parent machine!

Solution two - a Raspberry Pi

The second option is for them to have their own (linux) computer and not a virtual one. Until recently this option was very expensive. You needed to buy a computer such as a desktop or a laptop. Not anymore thanks to the Raspberry Pi.

The Raspberry Pi is a computer that fits in the palm of your hand and costs about the same as a large case of beer. It can be bought online from selected companies such as RS Electronics.

You can buy fancy cases for the Raspberry Pi to suit your child's tastes. Think of it as like choosing a mobile phone case or cover.

You also need an SD card like you use in your digital camera, plus a micro-USB power supply. Once you have your Raspberry Pi, you can either buy dedicated hardware for it or just re-use existing equipment that you have in your home if your family computer is a desktop computer. Just unplug the USB keyboard and mouse and monitor and plug them into the Raspberry Pi.

Before turning your Raspberry Pi on you will need to prepare the SD card. This page will tell you how - http://www.raspberrypi.org/downloads and this page will walk you through the setting up of your Raspberry Pi - http://www.raspberrypi.org/quick-start-guide

Once you have a working Raspberry Pi computer your child can just plug it in and power it up whenever they need to use a computer or if this want to connect to the internet.

Final word

By creating a virtual computer on your home computer you don't need to worry about your children downloading software or infected files onto the shared family computer. If their virtual machine becomes infected you can just delete it and create it again. If they do need to save anything that they create on their virtual computer then you can buy them a USB memory stick and allow the virtual computer to read from and write to it. Don't forget to virus check it occasionally!

If you would like your child to have their own computer and don't want to spend a small fortune then the Raspberry Pi is ideal. It's not a fast gaming machine but then it is a fully-functioning computer that fits in the palm of your hand and does not cost the earth. What more can you ask?

Your child can carry their computer around with them. They can connect it up at a friends house to share homework or to create and work on projects together. No need to carry a laptop or keyboard and mouse with them. You can also buy a WiFi dongle so that they can wirelessly access the internet without needing an ethernet cable.

This article was written with the intention of providing parents with two alternatives to letting their children run wild on the family computer. I hope it helped.

If you have any feedback regarding this article, or you have a suggestion for a new article, or just want to say thanks for the info then feel free to drop me an email at dave@detoxcomic.com.

Article date: 22nd December 2012. Last updated: 11th January 2013

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