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Family Link is Google’s solution for giving children under the age of 13 access to its services. Parents have to set up their kids’ accounts and are responsible for what they do on the web and their phones. There are also control instruments that allow parents to impose restrictions like bedtime and daily app limit timers, and get an exact breakdown of what children are using their devices for. Needless to say, kids hate the service, and they’re vocal about it: The Family Link app for kids has a staggering 1.4 rating average on the Play Store, as pointed out by our regular tipster Anthony (thanks!). I wanted to see what exactly is up with the service that gets so much hate, so I locked myself into a child account.
Meet Junior Vonau, my fictitious 6-year-old, who used a kid-safe Pixel 3 for a week.
Setting up a child account is pretty straightforward. You can do it on a brand-new device or create a second profile on an existing phone. I opted to factory reset my old Pixel 3 and started anew. Google leads you through the mandatory parental consent and explains how the Family Link service works: Parents can see stats, enforce age restrictions, set app limits and filters, control which apps can be installed, and so on.
There are essentially two tiers of Family Link controls: Children under 13 have much stricter limits by default and can’t use many Google services, while accounts for kids older than 13 don’t need to be set up via Family Link. If parents want to, they can still connect older children’s accounts and supervise them via the service, though teenagers can turn that off from their account. (These are the conditions in the US and in many parts of Europe, but the exact ages and options may vary by country.) I wanted to see how things are for kids under 13, which is why I made Junior six years old.
Since I had to get through my usual workday despite using a kid account, I lifted as many restrictions as I could: I allowed my 6-year-old self to install apps without permission, including those that are 18+ (like Twitter and Telegram), and enabled sideloading support. I could’ve lifted the mature sites filter, too, but I wanted to see if it would interfere with my regular usage in any way.
Setting up the phone, I quickly ran into the limitation that regularly drives kids and their parents crazy: Children under 13 are only allowed to use YouTube Kids. The regular YouTube app and YouTube Music are off-limits to them, and there’s nothing a parent can change about that.
That’s incredibly annoying when you share a YouTube family subscription and would like to give your child access to music, which was possible regardless of age with Play Music. It’s also a problem if teachers rely on educational YouTube content, especially with the ongoing pandemic. If content they send isn’t explicitly marked as child-safe, kids won’t be able to access it on their devices.
My workaround: I installed Mozilla Firefox and created a launcher shortcut for YouTube. Since I currently don’t use Google’s music streaming service, I just downloaded Deezer for my audio needs and signed in to my regular account. But there’s no great solution for anyone who would prefer to use YouTube Music and share the service with their whole family.
Now, keep in mind that an app like Firefox may work fine for me, but the third-party browser doesn’t respect the website restrictions you might want to impose on your kid — that’s the case for any third-party app not made by Google, so be sure to screen which apps you allow on your child’s phone. If you only want your child to visit a specific subset of websites, you’ll have to stick with Chrome and won’t be able to use the browser workaround for YouTube and other hard-blocked websites. If you were thinking, “Why not just use Chrome’s incognito mode,” I’m sad to inform you that it’s not available on children’s accounts. There’s a reason why sites like VideoLink have to exist.
If you absolutely do need or want your kid to use an app that might not be 100% child-friendly like a third-party browser, you might want to look into a service like NextDNS. It’s a private domain name lookup service that acts like a customizable firewall for your complete home network or individual devices, and you can use it to block content you don’t want your kid to be able to view. The problem is that DNS settings can be changed on Android without parental approval, so it’s not a foolproof technique. If you want to make sure that your kid can’t break out of the protected environment, adding a secondary router with NextDNS enabled and its own Wi-Fi network might be your best bet, though that introduces new problems for your kids with things like Chromecast and network printing. You could also use Cloudflare’s family DNS which automatically blocks adult content if you prefer a less restrictive approach for your whole home network.
In-app purchases are the bane of any family manager’s existence. While most purchased apps are automatically shared with all Google Family members, that doesn’t apply to in-app purchases. That makes sense for some IAP items like in-game currency, but when apps rely on Google’s payment system to unlock features or full variants, you’ll run into problems. I couldn’t use my preferred Reddit client Sync without ads because I had opted for the in-app purchase instead of the standalone Pro version. That’s no biggie for a $3 app, but it’s significantly worse once you get to more expensive IAPs or if you have several kids.
1/ As our family is starting to use Google Family Link more and more, we’re constantly bumping into its limitations.
These two, however, are so frustrating and egregious and have been present for years without being fixed that I can no longer recommend Family Link to anyone.
— Artem Russakovskii (@ArtemR) November 27, 2020
Android Police founder Artem Russakovski ran into that issue when he wanted to set up new tablets for his kids. He got a couple of learning apps from Originator Inc., a company specialized in education and entertainment apps for kids. It offers the full versions of its services as in-app purchases, which Artem got with his own account — as we learned, that means these aren’t available for his kids. The developers were kind enough to offer promotion codes worth about $66 per account to go around the IAP sharing limitation, so it would seem like they successfully managed to trick the arbitrary limitation. But here’s the kicker: When Artem tried to redeem the codes via his kids’ accounts, he got an error, telling him that only family managers can redeem codes. That would be him, the person who already purchased the IAPs in question. Other family managers have been reporting similar problems, so it’s not an edge case barely anyone runs into.
And as you can tell from the screenshot below, children also aren’t allowed to redeem regular gift cards, so don’t even think about gifting them some Play Store credit for Christmas.
We’re going to have to point to Apple for an example of how it should be done. The company announced this year that it would allow families to share in-app purchases, provided developers give their permission. It seems like the best of both worlds: Developers decide which IAPs can be shared on a case-by-case basis, making it possible to block sharing for in-game currencies and such. I can’t think of a reason why Google wouldn’t adopt a similar policy.
We reached out to Google multiple times, asking the company if it plans to introduce a similar IAP sharing option and what it would currently suggest in cases like Artem’s, but we haven’t heard back before publishing.
Kids being kids, they’re probably going to want to play a game or two on their phone or tablet. But Google won’t make it easy for you to sync progress to the cloud. The company’s all-encompassing tool for that, Play Games, isn’t available for kids under 13. That means you’ll have to hope that game developers have implemented their own mechanisms for syncing, and if they don’t, you might be out of luck once it’s time to upgrade your kids to a new phone or tablet.
The issue barely affects me since I hardly game on my phone, so I’ll have to point to Artem’s experience again. He reports that he had to sync game progress to his own Facebook account as a workaround for one particular game. That’s idiotic, but at least it works in this case.
If you’re keen on sharing your Stadia games with your kids, you’ll be happy to hear that you just need to set up your child’s account and activate Family Sharing in the Stadia settings. All of this can be done in the web interface on stadia.com.
Google logins in third-party apps
Two apps I usually sign into with my Google account.
If you want to get your kid a service like Pushbullet that only relies on Google and Facebook authentication, be aware that Google child accounts don’t support third-party logins. You’ll have to sign in via Facebook in this case, too. Most services offer their own logins these days, but you might run into the odd one or two that don’t.
Google apps and devices
During my experiment, I also ran into restrictions in Google apps other than YouTube. By default, there’s a child-safe filter that blocks certain websites in Chrome and Search, but that didn’t bother me personally. Kids additionally can’t use incognito mode at all, neither in Chrome nor in the Google app (usually accessible by tapping your account avatar -> use without an account). They also can’t access the Discover feed — there’s just a blank page with the Google logo on the leftmost home screen. I wonder why the screen isn’t disabled by default right after setup.
Left: Where’s the Discover feed? Middle: You can hit Install, but it won’t install. Right: Playing podcasts marked as explicit on a child account?
Kids also don’t have access to a whole slew of apps in addition to the ones mentioned earlier: Google Pay, Opinion Rewards, Google News, and Google Fit. They also can’t visit the Google Store website, and Google Duo has some restrictions where kids can only be reached by contacts saved to their account. There might be even more restrictions, but these are the ones I’ve run into. With some of these apps, you could argue that Google wants to protect children from unsuitable content, but then I don’t quite get why I could use Google Podcasts on my child account and play content marked as explicit.
Most annoyingly, children aren’t allowed to add secondary Google accounts to their phone other than Education accounts. That means I could neither access my personal nor my work email — though that might be a problem specific to someone who isn’t actually a kid. (If an adult needs to borrow a kid’s phone for a few days, they could just create a second user in system settings where they could sign in with their Google accounts.)
Wear OS is another problem for locked down accounts — kids simply can’t install the Wear OS app on their phones, which is necessary to set up and connect a Wear OS watch. Limiting Wear OS devices to proper Google accounts seems like an arbitrary decision that doesn’t do much to protect children from anything. It’s particularly weird when you consider that Google and Nest Home devices work with kids accounts without issues. And these have the potential to expose kids to unwanted content, as one of our commenters below told us whose three-year-old managed to overcome the YouTube restrictions by using Google Image Search on a Nest Hub.
I could work around some of these issues. My bank has an NFC payment system of its own, and I turned to Firefox for the other forbidden apps and services again. But remember that I was only able to install Firefox because I gave myself the permission — if you want to keep kids from visiting certain websites, you can’t let them install Firefox.
At least kids can sign up for beta releases on the Play Store — no limitation at all there.
Sometimes you might want to sideload apps on your kids’ devices, and I’m happy to report that that’s possible on Android phones and tablets. You can also activate developer settings for your kids’ phones if you want to tweak some settings. Both of these options can be found in the Family Link app under device settings. Keep in mind that activating developer settings could also allow your child to turn off Family Link supervision. And even if you allow apps from unknown sources, you still can’t install the forbidden Google apps from APK Mirror.
If you get your kid a Chromebook, you’ll run into similar, if not worse, restrictions. Like on Android, children aren’t allowed to use incognito mode, and parents can manage which websites kids can visit. Chrome will also block as many sexually explicit and violent sites as possible.
Above: Firefox on a Chromebook ain’t exactly pretty. Below: Something like Vivaldi is the better choice here.
Chromebooks don’t run any browser other than Chrome out of the box, but thanks to Android app support, I could install Firefox and use it to access the forbidden services and other Google accounts. I quickly switched to Vivaldi because of better scaling and a proper tabbed interface, though. Again, parental website restrictions don’t apply to third-party browsers, so use them with caution.
Family Link settings for Chromebooks (left) and Android phones or tablets (right).
If you need to sideload an app for a kid under 13, you’re out of luck. To sideload apps on Chromebooks, you need to temporarily stop supervision on a child’s account in the Family Link app, which can only be done for or by teenagers. You also can’t install Linux apps on a kids’ Chromebook.
Adding browser extensions is possible, but not really comfortable. In contrast to Android app installations, which can be approved remotely, kids have to bring their physical device to their parents who then have to enter their own Google account passwords to allow an add-on. That’s still a big improvement over the way things were — children used to be completely unable to install extensions.
Family Link administration
I didn’t have much administration to do while supervising myself, but many parents who do have a few complaints. A Twitter user shared that time limits apply to all of a kid’s devices, so the five-hour allowance on a Chromebook bought for remote learning also extends to the phone. Another parent shares that bonus time is granted in the form of a timer instead of usage time, so even when you want to grant more time for homework or something, you might be confronted with an unintuitive UX mostly aimed at postponing bedtime. You also can’t group certain apps to be “allowed at all times” when you impose daily limits, which would make granular controls so much easier.
I ran into quite a few limitations during my week with a child account, but many of them can be mitigated with workarounds. I’d imagine that the story might be different for families who actually want to use some of Family Link’s restrictions to protect their children, but overall, many obstacles can be overcome if needed.
But despite my relatively graceful experience with Family Link, there are still some egregious issues with the service that absolutely need to be addressed, regardless of how much you want to protect your children online. There’s no reason why in-app purchases shouldn’t be shareable with other family members, especially since bought apps are available to everyone. Then there are the ridiculous YouTube restrictions, particularly when it comes to YouTube Music. Its predecessor, Play Music, used to be available to all ages, so the sudden shift is arbitrary and probably made many families switch streaming services. The YouTube restrictions also lead to problems with educational videos that teachers could’ve used during COVID-19 lockdowns.
(By all means, restricting certain videos for children makes perfect sense, but the current approach is leaning too far to the restrictive end and feels like a band-aid solution for a too-long-ignored problem — that topic is enough material for another article, though.)
But that’s not where the negative Play Store reviews come from. When you scroll through the Family Link for children & teens listing, you’ll see many children who seem to suffer from overly controlling parents. Family Link can be used until kids are 18, and many reviews appear to come from teenagers. They complain about their parents imposing strict bedtime limits and app limits. Teenagers older than 13 can technically stop supervision at any time, but they first need to know that that’s a possibility and they still need to deal with their parents, who will be notified when they do that.
As someone who doesn’t have kids (yet), I think a tool like Family Link has to be used carefully and in cooperation with children. But the fact that parents even have the option to completely lock down a 17-year-old’s phone seems horrible to me — at that age, I already had a lot of autonomy, and I couldn’t imagine having someone look over my shoulder all the time while I used my phone or computer (though admittedly, it was a different time back then without horrible time sinks, rabbit holes, and bullying tools like Facebook and Instagram).
Google has been working on making Family Link better for a long time, but it’s clear that there’s still room for some important updates that would make the service much less frustrating. The company absolutely needs to fix IAP sharing, and I wouldn’t mind if it dialed back some of the extensive control options over older teenagers.
The article has been updated with details on workarounds for third-party apps and other restrictions for Google services some of our commenters have found.