Google’s got a new tool for parents: Family Link, a way for them to keep tabs on what their kids are doing on their devices, especially for those younger than 13. It has a good framework of parental controls, but some of the tools lack much-needed detail. Still, most parents will enjoy is the way it enables you to remotely manage activity: You can approve or deny your kids’ requests from anywhere.
Family Link represents Google’s attempt to address the trend of kids accessing devices and the internet at younger and younger ages. It gives kids real Google accounts, complete with Gmail addresses and access to most Google services, like Maps and search—but with restrictions that only the parent can control.
Google let us borrow a couple of Nexus 5X phones—one for the parent, one for the kid—to try out Family Link. They were already signed into test accounts, but Google also walked us through the sign-up process.
Starting a (Google) family
The first thing you need to do is download the Family Link app, so you can create a Family Group on Google, which establishes the parent as the group manager. Then, you use the app to create a Google account for your kid, which will automatically provision it as a kid account, with restrictions.
If you squatted a Gmail address for your kid years ago, bad news: You’ll need to create a new address for them through this process—you can’t just “kidify” that pre-existing account. You’ll also need a credit card since Google uses a $0.30 charge as official parental consent.
The kid account also has its own password, but the parent can always access a kid’s device with a parent access code (separate from the parent’s password).
With the kid account created, you simply use it to set up a new (or reset) device just like you would any Google account. This shows one of the strengths of Family Link: by and large, it’s not a new system for parents and kids to figure out; it’s just Google, with more restrictive rules—kind of like an annoying employer internet policy (which, let’s be honest, your kid should probably get used to anyway).
Family Link asks the parent to review Google’s pre-installed apps—all of them.
Still, although setup is straightforward, it takes longer than your average phone purchase. For starters, Family Link asks the parent to review Google’s pre-installed apps—all of them. This is a necessary step, since most of the apps weren’t designed for kids, so parents need to take the time to review permissions for each.
Each app—from Drive to Gmail—has a rating (E for Everyone, T for Teen, and so on). Parents can (and should) deselect apps they don’t want their kids to use (Hangouts and search will probably top that list). Android Pay and YouTube, however, are off limits for all kid accounts (though YouTube Kids is available).
For the ones that they approve, there are often controls over the level of access. Chrome, for example, gives three levels of access: unfiltered, SafeSearch (which filters porn and other types of sites) and restricted, where the parent needs to approve every website they visit.
Google Play has automatic filtering by age, so kids won’t see mature content, whether it’s apps, movies or whatever. Parents can restrict whether the child can download paid or free apps and require kids to seek approval for in-app purchases. You can even restrict any and all downloads (even free ones) without a parental thumbs-up.
All this approving or denying sounds tedious—and to a certain extent it is—but at least you can do it on your own time, wherever you are. Whereas many other types of controls (like Google’s own restricted profiles) require the parent’s physical presence for approvals, Family Link lets you do it remotely. When your kid wants something, you’ll get a notification, and consent is a tap away.
One of the better parts of Family Link are the broader controls. Every family is different as far as rules around screen time go, and Family Link takes this into account. Google lets you set a different limit for each day of the week, and you can also set a specific Bedtime period, where the device automatically locks up at a certain time of night.
However, the controls aren’t as granular as I’d like. You can only decide on periods with 30-minute increments, and—worse—you also can’t set the limit on any particular day lower than 30. There are some days in my family when no device screen time is allowed—why not have the option to go to zero? Also, it would be nice to be able to set different blackout periods that aren’t just bedtime (mealtimes, church, etc.).
All that sounds good in theory, but as a parent, I know it doesn’t quite work like that in practice. Kids often ask for extra time, and we often give in. It’s not just a lack of resolve—there are legit reasons (finish a battle in a game, for instance) where a few extra minutes can be warranted.
Unfortunately there’s no easy way for a kid to request extra time. They’ll see a warning that time is about to expire in the form of a notification, but there’s no way for them to request a few extra minutes. It would be nice if Family Link included a one-tap way to add 5 minutes to a session, but instead all you can do is completely unlock the device, getting rid of all limits for the day.
At least there’s an easy way to deny access. If you need your kid to get off the tablet now, limits and schedules be damned, you can quickly lock if down in a couple of ways: On your phone, just go to screen time and hit the big green lock, which will turn red. If that’s a little draconian for your taste, you can also just hide your kids’ favorite apps on their devices without locking them out entirely.
And you’ll know which apps are their favorites thanks to Family Link’s analytics. At any time, a parent can see just how much time the kid has been spending in various apps.
Google has done a good job of building a framework for Family Link. With more flexibility in the controls (especially around screen time), it could be ready for prime time—at least from the parents’ perspective. Still, I have to wonder if kids will take to Family Link. Countdown locks and lock screens are cold, unforgiving tools, and Google’s toolset can only be effective if parents marry it with the right amount of empathy and guidance.
There’s precious little of that in Family Link, nor should there be. Google makes impressive tech products, but it’s in no position to tell any parent how to introduce their kids to the internet and devices. If Google adds more detail to the controls they have the tools to do that at their own pace.
Correction 3/16 11:26 a.m. ET: The parent uses a separate parent access code to access their child’s device, not their Google password.