Who needs Big Brother when you can be Big Mother? Or Big Father.

One problem for parents in our increasingly technological world is how much time kids spend on the computer. Mom and Dad end up being the bad guys as they enforce when kids must log off. And even tracking exactly how much time Junior has been glued to the keyboard and monitor can be a challenge, especially if several users are involved or on nonschool days, when kids have more spare time.

The solution lies in a PC program called "Access Boss," which I discovered several months ago as the featured daily download on the website Giveaway of the Day. The program from FSPro Labs (www.fspro.net/access-boss) can be tried free for 30 days before paying $30 to buy it -- a reasonable price considering its capabilities.

"Access Boss" lets parents regain control of the computer while letting the PC do all the dirty work.

Now, I should pause to note that Windows Vista has built-in parenting controls, but I, like many PC users, haven't switched to Microsoft's new operating system, which has been slow to be accepted. Besides, "Access Boss" adds some features that Vista lacks. Macs also offer various parental controls, but I haven't tried them and have heard varying reports about their effectiveness.

The reality is that most home computer users are running PCs with Windows XP. And that's why they need a program such as "Access Boss."

It allows parents to determine what hours each day that kids can be on the computer and for how long. If a kid tries to log on the computer at a restricted time -- say, in the middle of the night while everyone is sleeping -- "Access Boss" won't allow it. If kids have a limit of one hour on the computer, "Access Boss" will warn them a minute beforehand (or however far in advance you set) that they should save their work because they're about to be logged off.

And, presto, it's done.

Any complaints from kids usually focus on the computer for logging them off, not dear old Mom or Dad. If my daughters, who are 12 and 15, complain to me, I reply, "Don't blame me; it's the computer."

Yes, of course, I set up the restrictions that "Access Boss" slavishly follows. But on the Salas family tree, this indispensable program allows my girls' anger, like a distant cousin, to be once removed.

The program can also restrict access to various functions on the computer and even to things such as the CD drive. It also allows the administrator to see usage stats.

"Access Boss" is installed as part of the PC's user shell. If you haven't already done so in Windows XP, you must create an all-access administrative account for yourself and then separate restricted log-ons for your kids to take advantage of its features.

"Access Boss" isn't perfect. While this is a glowing review, it's not an ad.

For example, it would be better if it allowed you to block specific programs and during a set time period. With that, I could, say, let my daughter use instant-messaging for her first 15 minutes on the PC, but then cut it off for the rest of her computer time. It also would be ideal to integrate an actual calendar so that I could set up restrictions in advance instead of for just a week that repeats unless I make changes.

One previous shortcoming, log-in restrictions based on an hourly cycle, has been updated in the latest offering, Version 3, to 15-minute increments. This reportedly is also an improvement over Vista's built-in parental controls.

Even with those nits, "Access Boss" strikes me as an essential tool for families running Windows XP. It has greatly reduced computer strife in the Salas household. The kids might write a differing view from that, but they can't access the computer just now.

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542