Google has its eye on your kids.
The tech giant is opening up its many online services to kids under 13 with a new tool called Family Link: an app that lets parents carefully manage the content on their kids’ devices. It marks one of the first attempts by a major tech company to directly address the reality of kids using tech products, potentially acquiring many more customers in the process albeit in a limited way.
Family Link allows kids to use real Google services Gmail, Maps, Chrome and more not watered down, “kiddie” versions. However, kid accounts are directly tied to parent accounts, and there are many granular controls over what kids can and can’t do. Each app has an overall rating for its content (Maps, for example, is rated “G”), and parents can limit the time a child uses a specific app or service, or block it altogether.
Google is opening up a limited beta of Family Link on March 15. The company says it’ll solicit feedback for a period, then launch it generally later this year, starting in the U.S.
Opening up services to kids under 13 is something of a third rail among tech companies, mostly because of an almost-two-decade-old law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. COPPA doesn’t prohibit kids under 13 from using the internet, but it does severely restrict the kind of information services can collect from users 12 and under. It also requires parental consent before the child can share almost any personal information, such as their gender, location or images of themselves.
“There’s always a concern if [kids] are going to stumble into some dark alley on the internet,” says Amar Gandhi, Google’s director of product management and one of the architects behind Family Link. “This is a problem we think Google can solve. A lot of the people who worked on this project are parents. We never think tech is a substitute for parenting, but we do think technology can help.”
Kids on the internet? There’s an app for that
Family Link addresses concerns about access with its extensive parental controls and limited collection of child data. Still, Google is potentially wandering into a minefield. The internet can be a confusing and dangerous place for children, and a lot of the success of Family Link will depend on the understanding of technical details, something parents aren’t exactly known for as a group.
But Google’s move while risky addresses a real issue: Kids are accessing the internet at earlier and earlier ages. Research shows the average starting age for a child receiving a cellphone is now 10.3 years and that 39 percent of kids get a “social media” account at 11.4, more than a year younger than the minimum age for most networks.
For tablets, the numbers are even greater, with a 2016 study showing 84 percent of kids 6-12 use tablets on a weekly basis.
Family Link gives kids their own Google account, complete with a Gmail address, managed by their parents.
Often parents will allow their kids to borrow the same smartphones or tablets that they use, with unfiltered access to the internet. There are third-party apps and services that can restrict access specific devices, but their tools and ease of use are a mixed bag plus, they don’t always work with the current version of Android or iOS.
Google has tried to address this problem before. In Android 4.3 Jelly Bean it introduced restricted profiles, letting kids use specific devices with limited access. But the restrictions lacked granular controls, typically turning services into an all-or-nothing affair.
“Restricted Profiles was much more of a device-centric feature,” says Gandhi. “I think that was limiting. The kid could not actually get their own Gmail account, they could not back up their photos into their own account space. They were basically taking a parent’s device.”
Family Link is meant to fix that. Rather than simply giving parents a tool to restrict access to a specific device, it gives kids their own Google account, complete with a Gmail address, managed by their parents. That way, the child’s experience is consistent across devices, and the parent can bestow or revoke permissions at will.
“This is the account that grows up with them, basically,” says Saurabh Sharma, product manager for Family Link. “After the child turns 13, you can lift the supervision when you want.”
How Family Link works
Parents will manage Family Link via an app they’ll need to download from Google Play. A similar app goes on the child’s device, and after the parent sets up the program on both devices, the two are linked. Right now, both phones need to be Androids, but Google says it’s working on an iOS version of the parent app. Because of the OS permissions needed, the child’s phone must be Android.
The basic “unit” of parental management is the app, Google says. Parents can allow or block access to any app (Google or otherwise) on a child’s device. Then, once those apps are approved, the parent can control their permissions. Some Google apps have even more controls Chrome for instance, allows three different levels of access: unfiltered, SafeSearch (where Google blocks porn sites and more) and restricted (where the child is only allowed to visit the sites the parent specifies).
“This is the account that grows up with them”
There are broader controls, too. Parents can set a limit on overall screen time, with different limits for each day of the week. There can be blackout times, too, so kids won’t be able to access their devices during mealtimes or after a certain time of night.
And there’s more than one way for a parent to “lock down” a child’s device with just a couple of taps.
“If it’s 6 o’clock and it’s dinner time, and my kid just won’t get off the phone, I can [tap] Lock Devices Now, and the device is automatically locked,” explains Sharma. “This is probably our internal users’ favorite feature.”
Whenever a child wants to download an app or visit a site that’s restricted, Family Link will send the parent a notification they can approve or deny. Parents can even view detailed analytics of what apps their kids are using and how much time they’re spending in them.
Most Google services from Play Movies to Photos are available to the child, with one exception: YouTube. Kids instead get access to YouTube Kids, which has its own age controls and restrictions. Apparently Google didn’t think it was worth re-inventing the wheel by building a separate Family Link filter for YouTube since much of that work has already been done.
Critics will see Family Link as Google cultivating new customers by hooking them on its services early. But kids were on the internet and using smartphones and tablets long before Google created tools to address that reality, and the company deserves credit for tackling the issue head-on and in a way that gives parents the level of control that’s right for them.
“Each family has its own family ground rules,” says Gandhi. “We’ve created a system that has flexibility, so each family can adapt it, and as the kid ages they can adjust it over time as well. I think getting that flexibility right has been key to this program.”
Even Google can’t predict every scenario, and its ambitious products are sometimes crafted with the tech-savvy in mind what works for Googlers in Mountain View may not work for soccer moms in Kansas City. But this time the stakes are higher: If Google succeeds in bringing kids online safely, it could point the way for Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and all the rest. If not, a whole generation could lose out.
Either way, when it comes to kids, the tech industry has a lot to learn.