How to track your kid’s digital footprint with Google Family Link

Keeping tabs on your child’s digital adventures can be challenging. Worries about how much screen time is safe and whether phones are killing the art of conversation are common. Limiting the amount of time they spend on their various gadgets, keeping track of what they’re doing, and preventing them from doing something they shouldn’t are all tricky tasks. Thankfully, you can enlist some help, and it doesn’t have to cost you anything.

Google’s Family Link service, designed for parents of kids and teens, gives you control over nearly every aspect of your child’s digital experience. You can approve or block apps and games they want to download from the Google Play Store, see how much time your kids are spending on their favorite apps, remotely lock their devices, filter out some kinds of content, and even track their location. Let’s take a closer look at how to get started.

Setting up an account

Family Link is now available in at least 30 countries including the U.S. and the U.K., as well as Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden. You can get started on the Family Link website, but there are some prerequisites.

Before you can use Family Link, you will need:

  • A Google Account for your child (you can create this within the Family Link app if they don’t already have one, if your child is under 13 or the applicable age in your country)
  • An Android device for your child that’s running Android 7.0 Nougat or later (a few devices running Android 5.0 and 6.0 also work)
  • Your own Android device (running Android 4.4 KitKat or later) or iOS device (running iOS 9 or later)
  • Your own Google Account
  • You and your child must live in the same country

Family Link does not support Google accounts provided through work or school — you need a personal Google account, such as a Gmail account, to create an account for your child.

Note: While you can use the Family Link app on an iPhone as a parent to review your child’s activity on an Android device, it does not work if your child has an iPhone. If your child uses an iPhone, then you’ll want to look at Apple’s Screen Time and Family Sharing instead.

Download the Family Link app for Android or iOS on your personal device from the Google Play Store. In Android 10, Google has baked Family Link into the main settings, so you can go to Settings > Digital Wellbeing & parental controls and set it up there.

Tap the plus icon at the top right to add your child to the family group and then follow the onscreen instructions. You will have to verify that you give parental consent. You may be able to do this with your own Google account details or you may be asked to use a credit card. This will usually result in a temporary authorization and no fee will actually be charged, but sometimes in the U.S., there might be a 30-cent fee.

There is a limit of one Family Link account per device.

When you add a child’s profile, Google will try to automatically select appropriate settings based on their age, but it’s worth dipping in and making sure that everything is set up the way you’d like.

Adding control to an existing Google Account

If a child already has their own Google Account that they’ve been managing by themselves, you can add supervision to that account with Family Link. The rules and setup are similar to creating a new child account, but it’s a process you and your child have to do together.

First, access your child’s Android device and open Settings. Select Google if necessary, and select Parental controls. Select Get started to begin, and provide Google with the information requested. You’ll have to say whether you are setting up controls for a child or a teen, and you’ll need to select your child’s current account. When prompted, sign in with your parent account that’s connected to Family Link.

Google will now ask you to set up filters and Family Link if you haven’t already done so. During the process, the app may ask for your child’s consent, which is why they need to be there with you (plus, explaining what you’re doing and why isn’t a bad idea, either).

How to filter content

Once you have successfully added your child, you’ll want to tap on their profile in the Family Link app and tap Manage settings to decide what content they can access and what filters should be applied. There are sections here for Google Play, Google Chrome, Google Search, Google Assistant, Android apps, Location, Account info, and More.

If you tap on Filters for Google Chrome, then you can choose to Try to block mature sites, which will attempt to block violence or sexually explicit content, or dig in and Only allow certain sites by creating a list of approved websites. This latter option also allows your child to request access to specific sites.

You should also go into Filters on Google Search, and toggle SafeSearch on. Once again, Google warns that it can’t guarantee everything you’d prefer your child didn’t see will be filtered out, but it seems to a pretty decent job.

How to manage your child’s app access

One of Family Link’s best features is its ability to help you manage the apps your children download and use. When they attempt to download an app from the Play Store, you will get a pop-up notification containing the name of the app, the app’s publisher, the average star rating, and the number of downloads it has accumulated.

Importantly, you’ll also see a maturity rating that’s based on the Entertainment Software Rating Board’s (ESRB) content ratings. Apps like Google Maps get “G” ratings for example, while slightly more risque titles get “E” (for ages six or older) or “T” (for ages 13 and up). The maturity rating system may differ from country to country, for example, in the United Kingdom you will see Pan European Game Information (PEGI) ratings instead. Armed with both the app information as well as the maturity rating, you can decide whether to approve or deny the installation.

Controlling app access

You can change the approval process and rules and control what your child can browse in the Google Play Store via the Family Link app in their profile by tapping Manage settings > Controls on Google Play.

Approving app downloads is not the limit of Family Link’s capabilities, however. Once an app is installed on your child’s device, you can control its permissions. You can deny the Facebook app access to the device’s camera and contacts, for example, or prevent a game from connecting to the internet. To do this go to Manage settings > Android apps and tap on an app, then tap Permissions to see your options.

If your child has already downloaded an app that you want to block but not necessarily remove, Family Link makes this very easy: Select the child’s account from the Family Link app, go to Apps Installed, and select More. Now find the app you want to block, and make sure Allow app is turned off. This is an easy way to block and unblock apps based on your child’s behavior, etc.

Blanket download filters

While you’re welcome to approve each app individually, it’s certainly not necessary. Family Link allows you to set blanket content restrictions (i.e., nothing above “G”) for downloading or purchasing apps, games, movies, TV, music, and books. You can also create restrictions for in-app purchases and paid content.

Select your child in Family Link, go to Settings, choose Manage Settings, and then go to Controls on Google Play. Look for the section call Content restrictions. Here you will see a couple of different filters you can enable. The Apps, Games, Movies and TV filter allows you to set a “maturity level” for what apps you want to allow for download, which can be adjusted with age. The Music and Books filter simply allows you to choose if you want to restrict music or books that are marked with an explicit tag for their content.

If you’re in the U.S., you will also see a card with Apps recommended by teachers that offers suggestions of age-appropriate apps and games your child might enjoy and even benefit from.

Set app time limits

Family Link also allows you to set individual time limits for certain apps. This is a great way to allow kids to play games or watch shows for limited amounts of time to ensure they still pay attention to responsibilities.

To begin, open up Family Link, make sure you are in the right account, and select View All Apps. To the right of each app on the list, you’ll see an hourglass icon. Select it for the apps you want to limit, and choose Set limit (you can also quickly block apps from this menu if you prefer). Then use the time wheel to set a daily time limit for that app. At the moment, only daily limits are available.

If you prefer, you can also go to your child’s device card and set daily limits for the entire device, as well as options to give bonus time, and lock the device for a specific amount of time, such as during nighttime hours. Parents may prefer this approach rather than going app by app.

Locking app permissions

If your child is of the age where they may want to start altering app permissions on their own to access content, you can lock permissions in so they can only be controlled from the parent Family Link account. Head to your child’s name in the Family Link app, select the Device card, and go to View settings. Here, look for App permissions. You’ll see the restrictions you have set: Select the right one, and you will see an option for allowing Only parents to change the permissions. Make sure this is enabled.

See how your child is spending time

Family Link provides a convenient way to see how your child is spending their digital time. You will get a weekly and monthly report showing how much time your kid spent with each app they accessed. You’ll see their app activity listed in their profile and you can tap More to access the full list of apps and games they used and for how long broken down for today, yesterday, the past seven days, or the last 30 days. If your kid has spent more time in Candy Crush than in their school math app, for example, you will see that.

How to limit your kid’s screen-on time

Family Link lets you limit the amount of time your kids spend on their device in two ways: By setting a Daily Limit and by specifying your kid’s Bedtime. Both appear as tabs in your child’s profile in the Family Link app.

With the Bedtime feature, you can tap Edit schedule to select a window of time when your child won’t be able to unlock their device. You can selectively impose limits on weekdays (9 p.m. to 7 a.m. Sunday to Thursday, for example) or weekends (10 p.m. to 8 a.m. Friday and Saturday). Or, you can lift limits altogether on certain days of the week.

The Daily Limit option is a little less granular. Tap on Edit limits and you can specify a daily usage limit — a set number of hours and minutes your child is allowed to use their device each day. Just like Bedtime, the amount can differ from day to day.

If Daily Limit and Bedtime are not doing the trick, you can lock your kids’ device at any time with the Lock now option. They will be kicked off their tablet or smartphone immediately, and can only gain access again when you toggle the setting off.

It works even when your kid’s device is not connected to the internet. A special parent’s access code restricts the device’s features until you manually unlock them.

How to track your child’s location

Take a look in your child’s profile under Manage settings > Location and make sure that See your child’s location is toggled on. This does require your child’s phone to be on and connected to the internet to work; otherwise, it will show their last know location. When it’s switched on, you should see a location tab in their profile with a map that shows their location. You can tap to expand it and zoom in. If the location is not real-time or very recent, then it will show as grayed out and it should tell you when it was last updated at the top.

A few handy extras

If your kids have a habit of misplacing their phones, then you should open up the Family Link app and head into their profile then find the phone tab that shows their device. You’ll see a Play sound option that you can tap to help you find it. You can also tap Settings here and remotely access a few settings on your child’s phone.

Take a look in their profile in Manage settings > … More and you can block photo sharing from Google Photos, prevent sign-ins on devices that aren’t supervised by Family Link (such as iPads), and Manage Google activity, which relates to your child’s privacy and the data Google generates and stores.

Sharing content and YouTube limitations

YouTube Thumbnails
Michael Archambault/Digital Trends

You can share content that you buy with your family group by opening up the Google Play Store, tapping the hamburger menu at the top left and choosing Family Library. You’ll see tabs listing any Apps, Movies & TV, or Books that you’re sharing. Tap the gear icon at the top right and you can have anything you buy automatically share or choose when to share things — the age restrictions for your kid will still apply, so they won’t be able to access unsuitable content even if you have this set to automatically share.

One problem we have encountered with YouTube is that Google applies the age restriction automatically and you can’t override it. This means children under the age of 13 can’t install the YouTube app, they have to use YouTube Kids instead. It also blocks them from using YouTube Premium, which is very annoying if you’re paying for a premium account to access music and avoid ads. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a way around this right now, but hopefully, Google will change this in an update. We’ll keep you posted.

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