Does Google Family Link offer the best parental controls?
My kids are spoiled when it comes to technology. I won't dispute that fact. It's part of having a dad who is constantly testing and reviewing new products. The three of them get to use the products as well, and at times, actively participate in testing.
However, they don't have the luxury of doing whatever they want, whenever they want on any electronic device. One example is the sheer amount of time I've taken to carefully fine-tune and manage parental controls on their iPod Touch devices.
I currently have it set so I have to approve each app before it's installed, either in person or remotely through Apple's Family Sharing. And nearly all websites in Safari are blocked, save for a few I have approved or added myself, and apps like Mail are completely disabled.
For the past year, I've thought this setup was ideal and the best way to approach parental controls. In fact, I've often wished Android had similar controls instead of creating a separate user account on a device with minor limitations.
Then, on Wednesday, Google announced Family Link, and I realized there's so much more Apple could be doing with parental controls, and it looks like Google is going to beat them to it.
Family Link launched on March 15, as an invite-only service, with a full public release expected later this year in the US. The service helps parents keep tabs on exactly what a child is doing on an Android device.
CNET saw an early preview of the upcoming service and had a chance to sit down with the Google engineers behind the new product. It's worth a read when you get a chance.
Google's Family Link is designed for users under 13 years old. Once it's available, a parent will need to download the Android Family Link app and create a Family Link Google account. The child signs into a compatible Android device (running Android Nougat 7.0 and above) using the Family Link account the parent created.
With everything set up, the parent can accept or block app installations from the Google Play Store and monitor the amount his or her child is using the device each day.
What caught my eye, and will surely catch the attention of parents just like me, is that you can view how much time your child is spending in each app (via weekly and monthly reports) and set daily time limits -- after which the device locks until the following day. You can also remotely lock a device on demand when it's time for dinner or bed, for example.
Not a single one of those features are currently possible on an iOS device, and yet each one seems like such an obvious feature.
My wife and I are left to trust that our kids are truly only listening to music as they fall asleep instead of trying to sneak in an extra YouTube video or Minecraft gaming session. Right now, we rely on disabling their Wi-Fi connection each night.
With Family Link, we can quickly and easily figure out if that is the case, and if they are indeed breaking the rules, we can lock down the device with a couple of taps.
My excitement isn't just about bed time, but more so about ensuring device use is healthy for my kids and not a distraction. By viewing raw data of just how much time each one uses a device, and how much time is spent on specific tasks, we can adjust usage behavior to benefit everyone.
Family Link isn't a perfect solution. For example, it doesn't offer a method to completely block access to core apps, such as Chrome or Gmail, and blocking of inappropriate content isn't possible across the board. Instead, parents will need to visit each app's preferences in order to block content young children shouldn't have access to.
Additionally, the child's device will need to be running Android 7.0 Nougat or above. Meaning, handing down old devices to a child won't be possible for a year or so, as only newer devices are being updated to Nougat (if at all).
I look forward to testing out Google Family Link and seeing if it truly is as good as it sounds. You can sign up to take part in early testing by requesting an invite.
Keep in mind you will need to be in the US and have an Android device for yourself, another for your child, and a Gmail account (G Suite apps aren't eligible to manage a Family Link account).
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