Google 'Family Link' gives parents a way to monitor preteens' accounts

It’s the latest sign of the importance that 'screen time' has for today’s kids, and of the new responsibilities it’s created for their parents.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/ File
Young children play a tea party game on a touchscreen iPad, on October 1, 2013 in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

In the 1990s, Congress mandated that all large televisions sold in the United States be equipped with something called a V-Chip, which enabled parents to block shows with mature content.

That device never quite caught on, but with kids spending more time than ever in front of screens, the concerns behind it remain strong. And now, Google is trying to address them.

On Wednesday, the tech giant introduced the latest addition to Google’s software product line: Google Family Link. Meant to be used on a preteen’s Android smartphone and linked with a parent's phone, the app allows Mom and Dad to monitor and approve the apps their kids use, and set screen time limits and a "bedtime" for the device. "The goal in every area of Google is to improve what we do for kids," Ms. Diwanji told CNET.

While parental-control software is nothing new, Google has now integrated these programs with its product line. It’s the latest sign of the importance that “screen time” has for today’s kids, and of the new responsibilities it’s created for their parents.

"What has happened over time is that media devices have become ubiquitous in almost every environment, and at almost every age," the American Academy of Pediatrics' David Hill told The Christian Science Monitor last year. "As we get more information about what the implications of this ubiquity are, hopefully we’re better able to provide guidelines that matches the reality."

The AAP’s guidelines for “screen time,” which Dr. Hill helps set as chair of its Council on Communications and Media Executive Committee, are a case in point. The Academy once recommended a maximum limit of two hours per day.

But with the rise of touchscreen devices, those guidelines were no longer workable: as of 2013, three-quarters of children had access to a "smart" device at home, according to one study. The AAP now recommends that, rather than make their smartphones and iPads entirely off-limits, parents monitor their children as they use the devices and teach them how to do so responsibly.

But when those kids get their own tablets and smartphones, things get trickier. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) imposes restrictions on websites offering services to minors. It was passed in 1998; many of the tech giants that have risen since then, including Google, set a minimum age of 13 for their accounts.

But Google's importance in day-to-day life makes both parents and kids often willing to overlook the rule: not only can Google accounts enable Gmail use, but also features such as Google calendars, logging in to YouTube, and using Google Drive.

The new Family Link service will allow them to keep doing that, but with some limits set by parents, echoing advice some tech experts have been recommending for years: active parental engagement.

"We've been, over time, shifting [responsibility] to the schools and to the government," software developer Robert Lotter told the Monitor last year. "We need to give that power and responsibility back to the parents, and we need to help them improve things for their children."

This approach isn't foolproof, however, especially when parents themselves are less tech-savvy. Low-income parents, for example, tend to be "less engaged when it comes to touch-screen media," the Monitor reported in 2013, "a pattern mirrored in the situation with 'old school' screens, such as TV."

Currently, Family Link can only be installed on a new phone; parents for whom that’s a burden may prefer to continue letting their kids borrow their phone or tablet.

But, as the AAP puts it, electronic media is no longer just a fun diversion for kids; it’s “just another environment,” where “children do the same things they have always done, only virtually.” With Family Link, Google likely sees a business opportunity in helping parents and kids navigate it.

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