This post first appeared in the Mercury News
By Larry Magid
Google is testing out a new service called Family Link, and it’s a big deal because it’s the first time this century that a major internet service provider is enrolling users under 13.
The Children’s Online Privacy Act (COPPA), which went into effect in 2000, requires verifiable parental consent before a site or online service can collect or use personal information from kids under 13, and it’s virtually impossible to offer many services – especially social networking or email — without collecting some personal information.
Though it’s always been possible to get parental consent, most services comply with the law by simply prohibiting kids under 13, because the collection and verification process is cumbersome and expensive. In the meantime, millions of kids have created accounts on Facebook, Google’s YouTube, Snapchat and other services, simply by lying about their age. And, according to a 2011 study, many children do so with parental permission or assistance.
Now young children and their parents don’t have to lie to create a Google account. Instead they can sign up for Family Link, which allows parents to create Google accounts for children under 13.
he service will later allow the parent to use an iOS device to manage their children’s accounts and may eventually allow kids to log on via the web. Parents also need a valid credit or debit card to pay a 30 cent verification fee. That small fee isn’t to enrich Google but to prove that a credit card owner (by law an adult) has approved the child’s account. Parents also needs their own Google account.
Parents start by downloading the Google Family Link app from the Google Play store, which they use to create a “family manager” account to create and manage accounts for their kids. The app recommends that the child and parent’s phones be side-by-side during the set-up process and, I would recommend that the child and parent also be sitting together so that they can also have a conversation about the responsible use of this new account.
By setting up an account, parents are not only giving permission to their kids, but they are also empowering themselves to monitor and control how their child’s device is being used. Parents can manage what apps the kids can use or set guidelines for the types of apps or websites a child can use based on ratings from the Entertainment Software Rating Board. Google’s own YouTube app is blocked because it has material unsuitable for young children, but the YouTube Kids app is, of course, allowed by default.
The parents’ Family Link app allows them to manage and view app activity, including how much time kids are spending using each app. By default, parents must approve any app as well as any in-app purchase, but parents can loosen these restrictions.
Parents can use their own Android device to control when their child’s device is used and set a “bed time” (not necessarily just at night) when the device is locked except for making phone calls. Parents can also set daily screen time limits and manage other times when the device can or can’t be used. There is also a “lock now” function for times when you just want your kid to stop using the phone right away. The parent doesn’t have to be nearby to control the child’s device.
Parents can authorize kids to have their own Gmail account and, by default, parents won’t see their kid’s email. Parents can, however, access and change their child’s password but — to keep kids from using their Gmail accounts on unprotected devices, only the child’s device can be used to log into that account. Parents do know how much time the child is spending using Gmail and all other apps.
There will be some who no doubt question Google’s intentions. Sure, an argument can be made that Google is hooking kids when they’re young but the fact is that many kids are already using Google services long before their 13th birthday, often with their parents’ permission.
My kids are now adults but they had AOL accounts well before they were 13 because we wanted them to be able to communicate with friends and family via email and take advantage of all the other services at the time. And, back then, AOL offered “Kids Only,” accounts which – like Google’s new kids accounts, gave parents control over what their kids could do.
We’re long passed the day that kids are clamoring for AOL accounts, but many young children now have smartphones and, frankly, many parents have little control over those phones or insights into how the kids are using them. With Google’s new service, parents have both control and knowledge, making it a lot easier for them to mentor and help manage their kids’ digital lives.
Google will notify both the parent and the child shortly before the child’s 13th birthday “to encourage a family conversation around ‘graduating’.” The child has the option to transition to a regular account or remain in the parent managed account until their 18th birthday. Even prior to a child’s 13th birthday, I urge parents to also think about loosening up restrictions as their children become more mature. The law doesn’t make any distinctions between 4 year olds and 12 year olds but smart parents do. Parental controls are like training wheels. I remember how exciting it was to equip my very young kids with bikes that couldn’t fall over, but it was even more exciting when we took off those training wheels and watched our kids learn to navigate on their own.
You can learn more and request an invitation to set up your own family accounts at families.google.com/familylink/
Disclosure: ConnectSafely.org receives financial support from Google and other tech companies.