Family Link: how Google's new accounts for under-13s work

Family Link allows children to use an Android device and Google services under rules and supervision from their parents.
Family Link allows children to use an Android device and Google services under rules and supervision from their parents. 

Parents will be able to keep a closer eye on their children's use of Android devices from this week, as Google announces the availability of Family Link in Australia.

The service, which allows kids under 13 access to Google services under the digital supervision of their parents, works by linking the child's account to those of their guardians.

Until now only Australians over 13 have been officially permitted to sign up for a Google account, but the reality is that people much younger than that want access to email, app stores and the internet on phones and tablets. Family Link is a way to give kids their own digital space on their own Android devices, while imposing some parental checks and balances.

On the parent's device, the app allows you to set rules and restrictions or approve apps and downloads.
On the parent's device, the app allows you to set rules and restrictions or approve apps and downloads. 

Google provided me with early access to the system to take a look at how it works, and essentially it's an expansion of the Google Families system that already allows parents to control spending for users under 18. It also allows for a bit more granularity of control than the similar system already in place for Apple devices. Of course Family Link works best when your family is using Android devices, but it's also possible for parents to access controls on iPhone and the web.

I used a Sony Xperia XZ as my child's device for testing, and setting it up was the same as ever except that, after I created a new Google account with a birth date in 2010, I was asked to hand the device to my parent for approval.

At this point I signed in with my own Google account to accept responsibility over my hypothetical child. I was shown a list of apps that come pre-installed on the XZ, and given the option to disable any of them I chose. For example I might prefer not to have Facebook or Spotify present on the device. This feature is especially handy because pre-installed apps will differ from phone to phone.

After a link was established that allowed my Google account to impose restrictions on my child's device, a new Family Link app was installed on both the child's phone and the Pixel 2 XL I was using as a parent's device, and at this point I was prompted to hand the Xperia back to the child.

Using the Family Link app on your own phone, you're pretty much free to monitor and control the child's device and activities as much or as little as you see fit. You can set the child's device to report its geographic location to you, you can see which apps your child has been using, set daily limits or bedtime hours to lock the child's device under certain conditions and more. Of course, you can't literally spy on the messages kids are sending or the content they're viewing.

If the child opens Family Link on their own device they'll see what information parents have requested and what rules they have set, which will encourage you to be transparent. You won't, for example, be able to monitor the kid's location without them knowing.

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In terms of apps and other stuff your child might access from Google's stores, you can set rules to govern how much freedom they have. You might decide you need to grant approval for all content your child attempts to access, or you can give your child free reign. More likely you'll decide that approval only needs to be sought for stuff that costs money, or only for in-app purchases. 

When the child wants to access content from the store and needs permission, they can either send an automatic message to a parent device, where the parent can review the content and make a decision, or they can simply hand their device to a parent who can input their password. Once approved the content is available to the child and, if necessary, the family payment method is charged.

You can also control the information Google collects from your child's account, including web activity, YouTube searches and voice recognition data. Of course turning some of these off will limit how well Google services will work for your kid. If you like, you can give responsibility over this decision to the child, so they can manage their own account preferences.

While for the most part you'll have to either allow or ban whole apps from the child's device, there's a finer level of control when it comes to Google's own services. For example you can allow free access to Chrome or use Google's filter that attempts to block mature sites. If you want to lock it down completely, you can restrict the browser to sites that you have specifically whitelisted.

Overall it seems like a sensible and competent system if you take the time to go through every option with your child and decide the rules. At its strictest settings your child will have to ask your permission for every app, book and movie download, you'll be able to see where they are at all times, revoke apps you think they're using too much and automatically lock their device at night or after too much use. But at the opposite end of the spectrum the device will effectively be all theirs, with you able to step in only when needed.

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