There's a tendency to look at Google's newly announced "Family Link" program and scoff. And rightly so. On one hand it's very much the sort of family account we parents have been asking for for years.
To recap: This is a legit way to get your under-13 kid some smartphone experience. These "Family Link" accounts come with parental controls in place, without having to resort to the full MDM (that's Mobile Device Management, for those of you who have never raided your company's IT department) headaches of a custom Google Apps (erm, now G Suite) account, or without having to lie about their age.
While we'll still be giving our kids actual Google accounts, we'll have control over a number of things, including:
- Downloads and purchases.
- What they see in search results through SafeSearch
- App permissions that are being used.
- Search and content filtering in YouTube Kids.
- Account password management.
- Screen time limits.
- Activity settings for the account.
- Giving account access to another family member. (Because MDM shouldn't just fall on the shoulders of the head nerd in charge!)
Why would anyone scoff at that, when it's very much giving us what we've wanted? Because (in typical Google fashion) it's actually taking aim at the future and probably not doing as much for you right now. Start with the first requirement: A phone for your kid that's running Android 7.x Nougat. Most folks don't have one of those just laying around. And for that matter, 97.2 percent of all active devices (as of last week, anyway) don't fit that bill.
Secondly is what I mentioned earlier — so many folks have just created new accounts and fudged the age listed in the profile. And Family Link only works with new accounts. (At least they'll have the option to graduate to full-blown Google accounts once the kid turns 13.)
Update: Don't rush out to delete a kid's account and start it anew with under Family Link. At least not with the same name.
Back to those bullet points above. Those are all good things to have, and they're things I'd previously tried hacking together through G Suite. But as anyone who's used Google Apps/G Suite knows, it's a second-class citizen when it comes to new (or even current) features within Google's products. And so after hitting one roadblock too many I put the kibosh on the custom account, rigged up something more proper but less-controlled, and have hoped for the best ever since.
And with that last sentence it's as good a time as any to remind ourselves that all the built-in parental controls in the world don't replace the ol' Mk I eyeball. I'm still going to pick up my kid's phone every now and then and flip through it. I'm still going to ask what it is they're doing on there. I'm still going to have them show me the apps that are important to them, and how they're using them to talk to their friends in ways that maybe I hadn't expected. (But, no, I'm not making my own Musical.ly account anytime soon.)
My kids will still be able to run across all kinds of awfulness in a web browser. They'll still be able to have all all sorts of conversations without my knowing. They'll still be able to take pictures and videos and have to learn that it's just as important to know when not to do that. And they'll still be able to fork over all kinds of data without thinking through the ramifications.
Google's Family Link won't change the fact that kids are kids, and parents are parents. And the two factions absolutely have to work together to minimize the pain and damage these pocket-sized computers can do — but also to teach about how much they can add to our lives.
But it should make it a touch easier. And when it comes to helping my kids make it through this crazy world, I need all the help I can get.
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