Hands on with Family Link, Google's powerful new tool for managing your kids' phone habits

Google's new app is easy to set up and offers a strong set of tools and safeguards for easing your kids into a dangerous online world.

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Credit: Greenbot

Every kid wants their own phone. Even if they don’t know how to text or make calls yet, they all want to play games and watch videos just like mom and dad, and any parent will tell you how hard it is to monitor their kids’ screen time. Google’s new Family Link service isn’t the first tool to help with this, but it’s easily the best, and once it launches later this year (its currently in an invitation-only testing phase), it could quickly become the indispensable tool in a parent’s arsenal.

Family Link was clearly developed by Google engineers who have children (or at least spend a lot of time with them). There’s nothing too overbearing about it, but it gives parents an excellent set of resources to monitor and manage their kids’ phone time. I received an early invite and was able to play around with it, and came away very impressed.

Easy peasy

From the set-up to the implementation, Google has taken a great deal of care with Family Link. Once you get selected for an invitation, you’ll be sent to the Play Store listing to download it on your phone first (which needs to have Android KitKit 4.4 or higher). After it installs, you’ll be asked to start a family group, which allows you to link your account with your child’s. You can invite up to four family members to join your group.

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Setting up a family group allows your Google account to link with your kid’s.

Then you’ll create the most important part of Family Link: your kid’s Google account. Previously Google accounts were limited to users 13 years or older, but Family Link fills that gap, giving parents control over the child’s account until they become a teenager. You’ll be asked to input your child’s first and last names, and then choose a username. (To be honest, that will probably be the hardest part of the process for most parents.) Parents will need to link a credit card to complete the process and will be charged a 30-cent fee per child to prove they have given consent. (Don't worry about losing the money, the transaction will be canceled once the process is completed.)

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You’ll need to create a new Google account for your child to set up Family Link, but good luck finding a username that hasn’t been taken.

Once that’s done you’re ready to set up your kid’s device. Their phone needs to be on Nougat (7.x) so the pool to choose from is much smaller, but if it’s one of your older devices, you’ll need to wipe your account or create a new user for them before you can log in. Then you’ll install Family Link on their phone and sign in with their Google account. You phone will automatically recognize when the set-up process is complete on their end, and the two will be linked.

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The two phones will automatically detect when the Family Link has been established.

To add a second child to the family group, just open Family Link app on your phone and start the process over (you’ll need to set up a separate user for the new kid). Once the whole family is set up, you can start digging into the settings. While both phones have the Family Link app installed, they operate quite differently.

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Both phones have the Family Link app installed, but only the parent’s phone has permission to change things.

On the parent’s side, you’ll be able to set up location services (the only area of the app that I had connection issues with), see app activity and installs, and ring the device, as well as dive into a slew of settings for things like app permissions, purchasing, blocking sites in Chrome, and filtering search results. You’ll also be able to block your kid from using certain apps on their phone, which removes them entirely. Kids also get a snapshot of their usage dashboard, but they aren’t able to change any of the settings.

When your child tries to download an app from the Play Store, you’ll receive a notification, and you can either approve or reject the request. Parents will also need to enter their password to launch when launching the app for the first time. Then, the app will appear in the Family Link app, where you can manage settings and block access. Some apps, like YouTube Kids for example, have additional settings available in the parent’s Family Link app.

Lock and key

All of the settings are very easy to find and understand, and offer tremendous control over the trouble your kid can get into. But the killer feature in Family Link is Screen time.

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The Screen time settings let you set time limits and a bedtime schedule to keep your kid’s phone habits in check.

Inside the dedicated tab, you’ll be able to set a daily limit on the amount of time your child spends on their phone as well as a bedtime schedule so they don’t sneak in some gaming in the middle of the night. Once it activates, your child won’t be able to see notifications or access their phone for any reason other than making or receiving calls (in the event of an emergency).

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Even when locked, you child will still be able to make and receive emergency calls.

When locked, your child’s phone will display a purple screen with a lock a symbol and the time that it will unlock. If for some reason a locked device doesn’t respond, parents can enter a code that will override the screen lock. And of course, they can instantly lock a phone when their child is misbehaving.

Family Link may be an overdue feature, but it’s one that Google took the time to get right. Everything from the simple set-up to the granular settings speaks to busy parents who need a little help monitoring their kids’ internet habits. It’s powerful without being overly intrusive and it gives parents an opportunity to explain why it’s important to limit their time online and how to stay safe doing it. 

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