Google made a bit of history today, opening up its universe of apps and services to users under 13 as their parents design it. Family Link, the name of the new parental control toolset, describes it well: Parents download the tools to their own and the kids’ devices, then link them up for a whole family’s real-time digital device management.
Family Link “marks one of the first attempts by a major tech company to directly address the reality of kids using tech products,” Mashable.com reported.
A groundbreaking aspect of this is that these aren’t watered-down kid versions of Chrome, Maps, Search, etc., they’re the full-blown versions as controlled by their parents. So parents can make each app available (or not), and if, for example, Search is allowed on a kid’s phone, it can have filtered search turned on.
But there’s so much more going on, here: phone time/bed time, whether and how location is used, which apps (e.g., games, social media, messenger apps) can be downloaded from Google Play and when they’re used. Some apps just won’t be made available to Family Link users under 13 – e.g., YouTube (YouTube Kids is available), Google Pay (which is only for users 18+) and apps rated M and up, based on ESRB.org ratings. It works a little like the way mobile carriers allow us to create a family administrator for all family members’ mobile accounts – only much more granular and real-time.
Now, there is no such thing as total Internet safety, right? I hope we all know that. We don’t even want that (see why here). Even this very comprehensive toolset doesn’t promise that. For example, if you allow your kids to download Firefox, they’ll be able to go to YouTube via that browser.
Which takes us to my favorite parts of this parental control tool: the inside-out part and the family communication part. Let me explain:
1. The inside-out part. Safety isn’t one-size-fits all, right? Because everybody’s use of digital media is very individual, including every kid’s use, safety works best from the inside out – the kid out. So the best products are those that can be calibrated to each child and their developmental style and pace by the people who understand them best: their parents. The parent can calibrate, tweak, change his/her mind and age up what’s on each child’s phone as the child matures.
2. The family communication part. Based on my conversations with Google, they intentionally built parent-child communication into the product. For example, kids can see what’s being shared with their parent about the activity on their phone or tablet, and they’re notified when the parent makes changes in the controls. Family Link also prepares everybody for a child’s 13th birthday, when they age out of the Children’s Online Privacy Act’s (COPPA’s) parental consent requirement. Both parent and child get a notification that the milestone is coming up and what the implications are (e.g., changes in exposure to advertising). Opting out of Family Link isn’t required when kids turn 13 – they can still keep Safe Search turned on, for example – but that parental consent requirement (of Google and all U.S. online service providers) goes away. About the age milestone, Google told me, “We expect this to be a family conversation, a thoughtful moment.” If those family conversations do happen because of Family Link – and I hope they do – that’s a bit of digital and media literacy education happening. And every little bit of that kind of thinking and communication is a good thing.
Family Link’s great because it’s “one-stop [parental control] shopping” (for Android device families) without being one-size-fits-all. A progressive step for sure. But I hope parents will use it more as a communication than a control tool. Here are three reasons for that: Control empowers the controller and disempowers the controlled, right when we want our kids to find, grow and use their powers for good in the world; the control part of this product represents the external kind of safeguard that can be useful but shifts the focus away from the internal safeguards that are key to child development; and control works only as long as it’s turned on and in use, while what kids learn through communication lasts a lifetime.
- Family Link is going to roll out slowly, Google told me. It’ll be in beta for a while, but you can request an invitation to its Early Access Program here. And here’s the Family Link product page at Google.
- I love the irony in CNET’s headline: “Google’s Family Link unlocks Android for kids.” It does open the world of Google to kids, while at the same time giving parents the ability to lock things down significantly. I think it’s a net gain, more of an unlocking, though, because it will liberate parents concerned about unsupervised Android phone and tablet use.
- USATODAY’s take on Family Link
- Google’s own blog post about the product