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Google Family Link (for Android)

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  • Pros

    Parental control works through child's Google Account. Filters mature content, manages screen time and apps. Parents can view child's location. Free.

  • Cons

    Strictly Android for parent and child. Works only with newly created Google accounts. No call/text control. No geofencing or other advanced features.

  • Bottom Line

    Google Family Link (for Android) puts parents in control of the Google accounts of their children who are under 13. It's effective and free, but it's very light on features.

By Neil J. Rubenking

Typically a parental control utility has to wrangle with the operating system to control and monitor your child's activity. Google Family Link (for Android) takes a different approach—it works almost entirely within the child's Google account. That fact empowers this free service, but also considerably limits what it can do. You'll definitely get more with a commercial Android parental control tool.

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If you're not an all-Android family, this service isn't for you. If you tend to give your kids hand-me-down old phones, you may also run into a problem. The parental app just requires a device running Android 4.4 KitKat or higher. However, the child's device must be running Android 7.0 Nougat or higher, or using one of a very few specific devices running Android 6.0 Marshmallow. Less than three percent of Android phones currently run Nougat, and it seems likely that children in the tween-and-under category are underrepresented in that already small group.

Google Family Link is free, but at present you must request an invitation. I received my invitation in just a couple of days, which seemed fine. You can add multiple children to your parental account, but it does require that each child use exactly one device. In addition, this service is strictly and only for children under 13 (the age limit differs in a few countries). A child who's turned 13 can unilaterally opt out of Family Link.

Device Setup

To start, grab your Android phone or tablet and download the Google Family Link app. After that, just follow the pages and pages of prompts. For testing purposes, I installed Family Link on a Nexus 9 running Android 5.0 Lollipop.

The first step is to create a family group, with yourself as the manager. Later, you can add your partner as a co-manager, if you wish. Once you've set this up, app and music sharing through Google Play Family Library also become available.

Next, you create your child's Google account. You can't connect an existing account, but that's not the limitation it seems. After all, those under 13 can't legitimately create an account, except through a parent-involved process like Google Family Link. As part of the process, Google charges your credit card 30 cents, to prove that you're an adult and give you an audit trail. Since you likely have a card associated with your account for Play store purchases, this is relatively painless.

You supply the child's full name, choose a username, and assign a password. Remember, this is likely to be your child's Google account for a long time, so picking a username like cutesy.wootsy@gmail.com is a bad idea.

Google Family Link (for Android) Parent Console

You can also read tons of information about privacy and such. For example, Google can't serve up personalized ads to kids, because tracking their activity is verboten. However, the kids still see ads. It also spells out the fact that when the kid hits 13, you're no longer in charge.

Once you've created that child account, the parental app advises placing the child's device next to your own. Now you initialize that device and sign in with the child's credentials, and with your own credentials as well. At this point, the Family Link app installs, and walks you through a couple more startup steps. You review the device's preinstalled apps and block any of them you want to. You also have the chance to fine-tune configuration settings such as whether to use the location service. When you're done, you'll see the all-clear screen on both devices.

Configuring Google Family Link

Because you control the child's Google account, you have total control over what apps can be installed on the device. You can require that the child get permission for every app installation, or limit the requirement to paid apps, or those that have in-app purchases. When the child tries to install a new app, Family Link points out the need for a parent's permission. The child can tap to send a request via Family Link, or simply hand the device to a nearby parent for permissions.

You can also restrict what content your child even sees in the Play store, setting a maximum age rating for apps, movies, and TV. By default, Family Link also restricts sexually explicit books and music.

Google Family Link (for Android) Review Apps

The content filter doesn't promise a lot. When enabled, it says it will "Try to block mature sites." Its description notes that no filter is perfect. Likewise, the SafeSearch setting warns that your child still might turn up some unwanted results. Content filtering only works in Chrome, so if your child tries to install a different browser, deny the request.

One big worry for parents is that kids spend too much time on their devices. With Family Link, parents can set a daily maximum for each day of the week, in half-hour increments. When the allotted time is up, the device locks for all purposes except telephone communication. Parents can also set a device-unavailable bedtime period, and can instantly lock the device with a tap if necessary.

Parental Monitoring

When you launch Family Link, you see a list of the kids in the family; tap one for an overview. If you've enabled location tracking (and you should), you'll see the child's location on a map at the top. There's no option for geofencing notifications like you get with Kaspersky Safe Kids (for Android) and a few others.

Just below that is a list of recent app and device activity, but it isn't enabled by default. Once you've turned it on, you see a summary of the current week's activity, with an option to expand that to the last 30 days. Do note that Family Link doesn't log website activity or search activity.

Next is a panel for time scheduling. You can see the child's bedtime and screen time limit for the day here. This is also the place to lock the child's phone with a tap, if things get out of hand.

Google Family Link (for Android)

Recently added apps appear in the next panel. You can tap to view all installed and blocked apps, and optionally change an app's status. Finally you can configure a few essential settings remotely, among them changing the screen lock password.

Family Link's Parental Control in Action

To see Family Link in action, I set up a new Google Pixel running Nougat as my imaginary child's device. Going through all the steps I described above took a while, but I was never at a loss for what to do next. I tried installing a few apps and asked for parental permission both by sending a message and by direct intervention. Simple!

When the allotted screen time ran out, I observed that the phone displayed the simple message, "Take a break," along with an indication of when screen time would again be available. Tapping the lock icon in the parental app brought up this screen immediately.

I couldn't come up with any inappropriate websites that Family Link didn't block, not directly. But with a little experimentation I found a secure anonymizing proxy site that got past the content filter. With access to a secure anonymizing proxy, I could surf the web completely free of content filtering. Think only teenagers know such tricks? Think again. Norton, ESET Parental Control (for Android), and Kaspersky, among others, filter HTTPS sites by category, so this trick wouldn't work on them.

I tried to install the YouTube app, but was told that only YouTube Kids was available to me, which makes sense. However, by searching the web for videos and trailers, I managed to find some violent and sexual videos. But then, Google did point out that its filtering isn't perfect.

What's Not Here?

Norton Family Parental Control (for Android), Kaspersky Safe Kids, and ESET Parental Control all offer an Android app that runs in parental or child mode, depending on how you log in. But they also offer full control through a Web-based console, something you don't get with Family Link.

Those same three, along with Net Nanny (for Android) and Qustodio, also let parents apply a child's configuration settings across multiple devices and platforms. With Family Link, you control precisely one device for each child.

Qustodio Parental Control (for Android) and Norton give parents full control over the child's phone calls and texts. Parents can view and monitor calls and texts, and block specific phone numbers or contacts.

SecurityWatch

Net Nanny and Mobicip (for Android) can only filter web content using a proprietary browser. Family Link at least filters Chrome. Most competing products work below the browser level, so it doesn't matter which browser the child uses.

In an effort to stand out, many Android parental control products offer helpful and unusual features. If your child gets into a jam, a tap on Qustodio's panic button silently sends a help request, with location, to a set of trusted contacts. The unusual Xnspy (for Android) lets worried parents listen in on ambient sounds. Kids can use FamilyTime Premium (for Android) to send a "please pick me up" request to parents. Family Link sticks with the basics.

However, here's one really important thing you don't get with Family Link—a price tag! It's the only Android parental control system we've reviewed that's completely free, apart from the 30 cents it charges you for verification. Its feature set is very basic, but you don't have to pay for it.

Free but Limited

Google Family Link aims at a very specific demographic—all-Android families with kids under 13 who use precisely one mobile device. If that describes you, go ahead and try it. It will let your kids enjoy the convenience of a Google account without letting them go wild.

If your family uses a mix of platforms, if your kids are 13 or older, or if your kids have more than one device apiece, this isn't the solution for you. And if you want a full range of parental control features, as noted, you won't get that from Google Family Link. Norton Family Parental Control (for Android) is our Editors' Choice for Android parental control. Norton also supports Windows and, in a limited fashion, iOS. For those whose kids only or mostly use iOS devices, Kaspersky Safe Kids (for iPhone) is our Editors' Choice, and a Safe Kids subscription covers Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS devices. Neither is free, but both offer much more than Family Link.

Other Google Parental Control & Monitoring

Neil Rubenking By Neil J. Rubenking Lead Analyst for Security Twitter Email

Neil Rubenking served as vice president and president of the San Francisco PC User Group for three years when the IBM PC was brand new. He was present at the formation of the Association of Shareware Professionals, and served on its board of directors. In 1986, PC Magazine brought Neil on board to handle the torrent of Turbo Pascal tips submitted by readers. By 1990, he had become PC Magazine's technical editor, and a coast-to-coast telecommuter. His "User to User" column supplied readers with tips… More »

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