App Helps Parents Monitor Kids' Online Habits

Even younger kids these days can school their parents when it comes to smartphone use, but knowing exactly how to pull up Candy Crush on any device in no time doesn't mean kids know exactly how to be safe online. In fact, that kind of unmitigated access to the internet is enough to have parents worried about the fact that owning a smartphone could introduce their little ones to adult content and that screen time may cut into their homework time or face-to-face interactions with friends. That's where Google's Family Link comes in. Now available for families of kids in the under 13 set to try out, the app aims to help parents and guardians manage their children's online habits.

Family Link, which is compatible with phones powered by Google's Android software, affords parents broad control over what their kids do on their own phones, and when. Once both a parent and a child download their corresponding versions of the app, the parents can monitor how much time kids spend on their apps, set daily limits for screen time, administer a "bedtime" for the device, and more — all remotely, according to USA Today. And that part is essential, since kids are notoriously sneaky (remember reading books under your bed covers with a flashlight? This is the 21st century version of that).

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Social media sites like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram all require users to be at least 13 years old to sign up thanks to legal constraints associated with making such services kid-friendly. Still, a National Consumers League survey found that 56 percent of kids between the ages of 8 and 12 had mobile phones in 2012 — a figure that will only rise with the continued ubiquity and integration of technology in everyone's daily lives. Just as kids are constantly navigating online spaces, parents are learning how to deal with the associated risks. Family Link is ready to help with that.

The app strives to allow kids access to a more age-appropriate version of the internet. The preteens get to have their own Google accounts, for example, but their phones will carry YT Kids instead of YouTube. Parents decide on a case-by-case basis which apps a kid can install simply by approving or denying kids' requests from their own Android phone. Parents also have the power to disable certain features, like search, depending on what they believe their kids are ready for.

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Right now, families who want to try out the app, which is still a work in progress, can request permission to do so by clicking here to visit Family Link's website. Google is soliciting feedback from users ahead of an anticipated early-summer launch. It's also working a version that will work with iOS devices, although no approximate release date for that has been set.

And while parents likely will appreciate the opportunity to monitor their kids' online habits, Google is just as focused on winning over the kids themselves. Family Link aims "to bring millions of new users into the fold — and to hook them when they're young and impressionable," CNET's Stephen Shankland wrote. Shankland's own son was less than jazzed about the prospect when he learned about it, though. "So you can watch me creepily?" the 11-year-old reportedly asked. "That's what all the other parent stuff does. Why would I want that? I don't get anything out of that."

Perhaps Family Link will be most effective, then, at starting a much-needed conversation about internet safety and use between parents and their children. In its current form, the app leaves lots of room for families to individualize the rules and restrictions placed on kids phones, a process they can go through together to get on the same page.