Every kid wants their own phone. Even if they don’t know how to text or make calls yet, they all want to play games or watch videos just like mom and dad, and any parent will tell you how hard it is to monitor their kids’ screen time. Google’s new Family Link service isn’t the first tool to help with this, but it’s easily the best, and it could quickly become the indispensable tool in a parent’s arsenal.
Previously available by invitation only, Family Link is now available for all parents, and it was clearly developed by Google engineers who have children (or at least spend a lot of time around them). There’s nothing too overbearing about it, but it gives parents an excellent set of resources to monitor and manage their kids’ phone time.
You’ll need three things to get Family Link set up:
An Android phone, tablet, iPhone, or iPad (for you)
An Android phone or tablet running Nougat (for your kid)
A Google account
As long as you have those three things, it’s pretty easy to get started. First, you’ll need to head over to the Play Store or the App Store to download it. After it installs, you’ll be asked to start a family group, which allows you to link your account with your child’s. You can invite up to four family members to join your group.
Then you’ll create the most important part of Family Link: your kid’s Google account. Previously Google accounts were limited to users 13 years or older, but Family Link fills that gap, giving parents control over the child’s account until they become a teenager. You’ll be asked to input your child’s first and last names, and then choose a username. (To be honest, that will probably be the hardest part of the process for most parents.) Parents will need to link a credit card to complete the process and will be charged a 30-cent fee per child to prove they have given consent. (Don’t worry about losing the money, the transaction will be canceled once the process is completed.)
Set up your kid’s Android phone
Once that’s done you’re ready to set up your kid’s device. Their phone/tablet needs to be 1) an Android device, and 2) on Nougat, so the pool to choose from is relatively small. Assuming you’re using one of your older devices, you’ll need to create a new user for them before you can log in. Then you’ll install the Family Link app on their device and sign in with their Google account. Your phone will automatically recognize when the set-up process is complete on their end, and the two will be linked.
To add a second child to the family group, just open Family Link app on your phone and start the process over (you’ll need to set up a separate user for the new kid). Once the whole family is set up, you can start digging into the settings. While both devices have the Family Link app installed, however, they operate quite differently.
Block apps and approve downloads
On the parent’s side, you’ll be able to set up location services (the only area of the app that I had connection issues with), see app activity and installs, and ring the device, as well as dive into a slew of settings for things like app permissions, purchasing, blocking sites in Chrome, and filtering search results. You’ll also be able to block your kid from using certain apps on their phone, which removes them entirely. Kids also get a snapshot of their usage dashboard, but they aren’t able to change any of the settings.
When your child tries to download an app from the Play Store, you’ll receive a notification, and you can either approve or reject the request. Parents will also need to enter their password to launch when launching the app for the first time. Then, the app will appear in the Family Link app, where you can manage settings and block access. Some apps, like YouTube Kids for example, have additional settings available in the parent’s Family Link app.
Limit screen time
All of the settings are very easy to find and understand, and offer tremendous control over the trouble your kid can get into. But the killer feature in Family Link is screen time.
Inside the dedicated tab, you’ll be able to set a daily limit on the amount of time your child spends on their phone as well as a bedtime schedule so they don’t sneak in some gaming in the middle of the night. Once it activates, your child won’t be able to see notifications or access their phone for any reason other than making or receiving calls (in the event of an emergency).
When locked, your child’s phone will display a purple screen with a lock a symbol and the time that it will unlock. If for some reason a locked device doesn’t respond, parents can enter a code that will override the screen lock. And of course, they can instantly lock a phone when their child is misbehaving.
Family Link may be an overdue feature, but it’s one that Google took the time to get right. Everything from the simple set-up to the granular settings speaks to busy parents who need a little help monitoring their kids’ internet habits. It’s powerful without being overly intrusive and it gives parents an opportunity to explain why it’s important to limit their time online and how to stay safe doing it.
Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.