NEW YORK — There’s a host of reasons why some parents are reluctant to let their youngsters have a smartphone. They fear the kid will spend too much time on the device, when they should instead be doing their homework or playing outside with friends.
They fret kids will be exposed to age-inappropriate material, in effect entering the cyber-equivalent of some dark alley. They worry, too, that the child might lose the device.
Google becomes the latest company to tackle such parental concerns. Starting Wednesday, parents with children under 13 can request early access to a Family Link app from Google that gets installed on their own Android phone and on an Android phone they give to their kid. Then through Family Link, mom or dad can manage the apps that their kid can use, peek at how much time he or she is spending on the apps that are approved, and choose bedtime and daily use limits. At any point, parents can remotely lock the kid’s device or check on the location of the handset.
Since Family Link is still in a testing period, Google is seeking feedback from parents who do receive an invitation and will apply changes leading up to, Google hopes, an early summer launch.
I tried Family Link with my 10-year-old son Samuel, who doesn’t yet have his own phone. For the purposes of this tryout, we were both issued test Nexus 5X smartphones, his with the kid version of Family Link preinstalled, of course, mine with the parental version.
After the actual app launch, parent and child are meant to go through the Family Link installation process together and, to the degree possible, agree on digital ground rules.
As a starting point, you create a Google Account for your kid; if he or she already has one, you must choose a new account from scratch. The kid’s device must be running Android Nougat 7.0 or later. A parent can run a device dating as far back to Android KitKit.
Google says it is working on an iOS version of the parent (but not kid's) phone too, but the timing of a release isn’t clear.
The software on the phone you give your kid looks much like the software on your own phone. Both have icons for the Family Link app, both have icons for the Google Play store and other Google apps. One difference on our test devices: Sam's phone had YT Kids, which can be downloaded with a parent's permission, rather than the more grownup YouTube, which is not available on a kid's phone with Family Link.
Parents get to restrict what the child can see when he or she browses Google Play and limit the other apps. By default, mature and adult-only apps are blocked inside Google Play so your child can’t even see them, though parents can alter the settings to be more or less permissive.
Mom and dad can also set age rating restrictions for movies and TV shows, block books and music with sexual or explicit content, and choose whether photos can be shared. Parents can also arrange to approve all downloads and purchases that their child wants to make on a case-by-case basis. Or parents might choose to only have to approve apps that cost money. You’ll get a notification when your kid wants an app; you can say yay or nay remotely.
Parents can also put restrictions on the websites kids can view inside the Chrome browser. You can customize an approval list or trust Google to block mature or violent sites.
As an additional protection, kids are unable to browse Chrome in private or “incognito” mode like their parents can.
A SafeSearch filter is turned on by default — but as Google itself acknowledges, it isn’t perfect, nor is it designed to suppress informational or newsworthy articles on topics like sex education and sexting, even if graphic. That meant a search for “sexting” went through on Sam’s phone, and I was able to read an article on the subject. Parents can turn off search altogether if they wish.
Google Now is not available to kids; I’m told the Google Assistant will be available on certain devices.
One feature that immediately paid off: when Sam misplaced the device I was able to remotely ring it from the parent phone and find it.
There are a few more things I’d like to eventually see that are not part of this early version. While parents can set screen time limits for the device itself, they cannot do so for specific apps. I’d prefer, after a certain time of day, you would have the flexibility to let your kid read a book on the phone or use the device for schoolwork, say, but not be able to play a game or text. Google says it will listen to feedback on this subject.
Also worth noting: Family Link does not provide parents the ability to specifically block certain people, though such functionality is built into Google apps like Gmail.
When your child turns 13 they are aged out of Family Link and can effectively graduate to an unsupervised status. Both parent and kid are notified a month or so prior to his or her birthday.
Google says that technology is no substitute for parenting and I wholeheartedly agree. Still, many parents will appreciate the controls and tools Google is offering here, especially as they’re fine-tuned leading up to launch.
Copyright 2017 USA TODAY