X

Google's Family Link brings Android phones to preteens

The parental oversight tool that opens up Gmail accounts and other services needing a Google account to kids under 13 is out of private testing.

stephenshankland.jpg
stephenshankland.jpg
Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science Credentials
  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
3 min read

Family Link, Google's software for getting kids their own Android phones with some parental oversight, is now available to anyone in the US.

The company unveiled Family Link in March as an invitation-only service that opens up Gmail accounts and other services needing a Google account to children 12 and under. Now anyone in the US can get Family Link and set it up for their kids, Google said Thursday.

Google Family Link shows what apps your child used and installed and lets you remotely lock or ring the phone.
Enlarge Image
Google Family Link shows what apps your child used and installed and lets you remotely lock or ring the phone.

Google Family Link shows what apps your child used and installed and lets you remotely lock or ring the phone.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Family Link lets parents with an iPhone or Android phone put some limits on their kids' phone usage -- for example, the number of hours per day, which apps can be installed, and a bedtime after which the phone is locked. With the Family Link administration app, parents can see where kids are, lock a lost phone and reset its password if the child forgets it.

Kids may not like the oversight, but they may like it better than having no phone at all. And when they turn 13, their account graduates to an ordinary Google account they control.

Kids and tech are a difficult combination. They see parents on their phones all the time and often are eager for the distractions of games and videos. But the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages unfettered access to electronic devices. Family Link is Google's best effort to come up with a compromise and make sure families are aware of the ups and downs.

Legal constraints like the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) mean it's not simple to operate a service that includes kids. Facebook , Snapchat , Instagram, WhatsApp, Flickr and many other services have 13-and-up age requirements. With tens of millions of kids in the US, though, Google has a chance to gain a foothold in a huge new market.

google-family-link-app-icon

Google Family Link app icon

Google

Plenty of kids set up Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and other accounts by lying about their ages. Often parents help out so they can get their child a useful Gmail address. Google has discussed the idea of migrating existing Google accounts into Family Link, but for now, parents will need to set up a new one.

"This is a tough problem, and we're committed to helping users in this situation," Google said in a statement about kids with existing Google accounts. "This will take some time, but we're on it."

Family Link lets parents control kids' phones pretty tightly, but it also works with a more laissez-faire attitude.

"Family Link can help you set certain digital ground rules that work for your family, whether you're occasionally checking in on your kid's device activity, or locking their device every day before dinner time," said Saurabh Sharma, Google's product manager for kids and families, in a blog post. 

Most Google Family Link features like tracking your child's physical location are optional.
Enlarge Image
Most Google Family Link features like tracking your child's physical location are optional.

Most Google Family Link features -- like tracking your child on the bus to school -- are optional.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

There are a few changes from the invitation-only version. Parents now can see what apps kids used most over the current day and previous day, not just the last week and last month as before. The parental app now works on iPhones and, to a limited extent, the web, not just on Android phones. And Google expanded a "tips for families" section that helps people get a handle on touchy subjects like cyberbullying and online sharing.

Google plans to expand Family Link beyond the US, but it's complicated given different laws concerning children. The company isn't yet willing to share details about the schedule.

Google Family Link requires parents set up kids' accounts and that kids have a new or freshly reset Android phone running Android 7.0 or later.

Tech Enabled: CNET chronicles tech's role in providing new kinds of accessibility.

The Smartest Stuff: Innovators are thinking up new ways to make you, and the things around you, smarter.