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.
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.
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.
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.
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