This story was originally published and last updated .
Children under the age of 13 can't create an unsupervised Google account for themselves. Instead, parents have to set up the accounts for them using Family Link, which is supposed to give them a lot of control over what apps and games kids can get, how much screentime they're allowed, and which websites they can visit. Parents can even get a streamlined overview of their kids' app usage à la Digital Wellbeing. But what does it feel like to sit on the receiving end of the system? Needless to say, kids seem to hate the service, and they're vocal about it; the Family Link for kids app has a staggering average rating of 1.4 stars on the Play Store.
I wanted to see what exactly is up with Family Link and if it really deserves the hate it's getting, 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 a phone already in use with another account. 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 end. (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 what things are like 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, you dirty minds!), 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 phone usage in any way.
YouTube used to be the biggest pain point for any kid under 13. Before February 2021, YouTube was simply completely off-limits for kids. Google initially decided to do this in oder to show regulators and advertisers that it was serious about protecting children from inappropriate content, but YouTube Kids, the extra app the company created that was supposed to safe-guard children, simply proved to be too limited. The limitations were becoming even more problematic when the pandemic struck, as teachers weren't able to share educational videos with kids using supervised Android and Chrome OS devices.
Luckily, that's in the past. When setting up a kids account now, you can select to give them access to "supervised experiences" on the regular YouTube app. There are three tiers of protective layers, and Google is using a mixture of user input, machine learning, and human review to determine which videos to include in each level. Features like livestreams, comments, live chats, and any create options are unavailable for kids, and parents have full access to view and search history. You can read more about limits and features in our dedicated article here.
Unfortunately, YouTube Music still isn't accessible for kid accounts. That means that people who have previously relied on Google Play Music to provide their whole family with music were essentially forced to switch to another service like Spotify, which is available for kids. At least Google has promised to bring YouTube Music to kids in the future, though the company hasn't shared when that will happen. The subscribers it has lost likely won't return, though.
During my initial test earlier this year, losing the YouTube app was one of the biggest pain points, but back then, I simply installed Firefox to access the mobile site instead.
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 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 still 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 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-based printing.
You could use Cloudflare's family DNS instead, 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 for 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 Russakovskii 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 block, 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 games on Christmas.
We're going to have to point to Apple for an example of how it should be done. In 2020, the company announced 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 basically never play games 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.
A while ago, Google didn't allow children to sign in to third-party apps and services with their Google accounts, but that changed in 2021. By default, children have to ask their parents for approval when they want to use their accounts to sign into apps and services, but at least it's now possible to use this sign-in method in the first place.
In the past, if you wanted to get your kid a service like Pushbullet that only relies on Google for authentication, you'd be out of luck. Most services offer their own logins these days, but people often run into one or two oddballs that don't.
Google apps and devices
While the YouTube woes might mostly be solved, there are still a lot of limitations to run into with other Google apps. By default, there's a child-safe filter that blocks certain websites in Chrome and Search, but that wasn't a problem for me during my experiment. 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 was able to use Google Podcasts on my child account and could 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 (that kid is going places for sure!).
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 have a fool-proof way to prevent 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, rest at ease — kids still can't install the collection of 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 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 if you want to avoid giving your child access to all of the internet, use these 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 on a Chromebook, you're out of luck, though. 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 kid's 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.
At least Google recently improved the Family Link setup process, streamlining everything about it.
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 hard limit instead of one that only counts active 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.
Google recently added the option to always allow certain apps, which is an improvement. But you still can't group apps to be "allowed at all times" when you impose daily limits, which would make granular controls 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 convoluted 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 to the competition.
(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 over 13. 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 try to remove them as supervisors.
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 wouldn't be comfortable at all having someone see everything I do on my phone or computer.
Google has done a lot to make Family Link better over the last year or two, but it's clear that there's still room for 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 to be in line with Google's latest rules when it comes to Family Link and child accounts.