Google's new parental control app

Google's new parental control app

The only consensus among parents about the right age for a child to have unfettered access to a smartphone is that there is no magic number. But if you sign up for Family Link, which is Google’s new parental controls software for managing children’s Android phones, Google decides for you.  At the age of 13, a child can choose to “graduate,” as Google calls it, or lift restrictions, getting the keys to the internet kingdom and all the good and bad things that come with it. That’s too bad,because at first glance, Family Link has all the hallmarks of a winner. It is free, well-designed and packed with thoughtful features for regulating a child’s smartphone use, like the ability to monitor how often a game is played or to even lock down a device during bedtime.

Yet nearly all of those benefits are undermined by Google’s decision to let children remove the restrictions the instant they become teenagers. “The fact that the kid can graduate themselves is just preposterous,” said Jesse Weinberger, an internet safety speaker who gives presentations to parents, schools and law enforcement officials. “It takes the power out of the parents’ hands, which is a big no-no.”

Google made Family Link available for public testing in March, though the software is still in development and available for use on an invitation-only basis. Before it goes wide, I tested the parental controls for a week and assessed the features and policies with child safety experts. The takeaway: If you are contemplating the purchase of an Android phone for your child but want to restrict access, there are better parental apps out there that give you more control. Or you could buy your child an iPhone, which has restrictions that can’t easily be removed.

An overview

Family Link has lots of perks that may be a boon for parents. To set it up, request an invitation to the program on Google’s webpage and wait for an email with a link to install the software. The app is available for both iPhones and Android devices. Inside the app, you can create Google accounts for your children, sharing information like their names and birth dates. Then when your child logs in to an Android phone, the device immediately requires you, the parent, to log in and install the Family Link app onto the device so it can be monitored.

From there, Family Link is a breeze to use. On the parent’s phone, tapping on the child’s account profile brings up a list of options. You can follow a child’s location, which can be useful for safety purposes or for picking the child up from school. You can also approve or reject apps that a child is trying to download — so if you’re reluctant about Snapchat or an addictive game like Boom Beach, simply block the apps. Parents can also get a weekly report to see how often a child is using a certain app, like a game, and choose to have a conversation with the child about using the software responsibly, or block the app temporarily.

Parents can also use Family Link to create restrictions for how children browse the web. You can turn on a filter that blocks mature websites, though Google acknowledges the filter is imperfect and some offensive sites may get past it. For a more nitpicky approach, you can also require the child to get permission for each site visited, blocking the ones you disapprove of. Parents will probably love a feature called screen time, which can be used to set limits for how long a child can use a phone each day. For instance, you could give the child three hours of screen time on weekdays. You can also schedule regular bedtime hours that lock down the device at specific times — between 9 pm and 7 am, for example.

Before the device is about to be locked, the child gets a notification; when the screen locks down, the child will still be able to answer phone calls to talk to the parent or tap on an Emergency button to call the police. Caroline Knorr, the parenting editor of Common Sense Media, which evaluates content and products for families, applauded the screen time feature, noting the difficulty of getting children to put down their phones.

Why 13?

All these neat parental controls start to come undone the day the child turns 13. At that point, Google gives the child the option to be free of the Family Link restrictions or stick with them — and I can’t imagine any child choosing the latter. Saurabh Sharma, Google’s product manager for Family Link, said the policy was designed this way because 13 is when people can register for Google accounts without parental consent. That complies with a federal regulation in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which forbids companies from collecting data from children under 13 without a parent’s approval. Yet I would argue that Google should design a policy with parents’ best interests in mind. 

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