Google’s Family Link for remote device management – puberty, adulthood, and Google Suites

Special needs teens and adults are a vulnerable population. As parents and guardians (Guides) we are obliged to protect them from threats as best we can. Some of those threats can come from smartphones.

Smartphones can promote independence, but they also create risks and harms. The hardest part of my ‘iPhone for all book project’ is writing about how to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms. Excessive screen time is one harm. Other problems include web content that triggers a problematic obsession [4], social media mistakes, scams, trolls and predators, and even legal semi-scams like costly game add-ons and subscriptions.

Guides need tools to manage these risks. We need tools that for teens who live with us, and for adults who may have a separate residence. Especially for the latter, we need remote management tools [1] we can use from our own smartphones or computers.

Apple has effectively no remote management tools [2]. The one small exception is ‘ask to buy’ functionality for Family Sharing — which only works for under 18. In theory third parties could fill this gap, but I’ve found problems with all of the solutions I’ve tested. Qustodio’s VPN can’t handle encrypted connectionsMMGuardian has several killer flaws, and their competition didn’t  even meet my minimal test standards [3].

Google, on the other hand, has multiple remote management tools. If you use Google Suite (but not the free version some of us have) you have a business class mobile device management tool that even supports iPhones. If you’re an educator you can use Google Classroom and G Suite for Education. Lastly, if you’re a parent, you can use Family Link.

Family Link includes:

  • app level blocks and permissions
  • screen time limits
  • web activity controls (!)
  • location tracking

Family Link isn’t quite perfect. It’s not available for G Suite users for example — so if you’re a geek family and have paid for G Suite Basic you’re out of luck [4]. 

There’s also a manageable problem with turning 13. Google considers this the “age of consent” for the US. They don’t seem to mean this in the legal sense of consenting to sexual intercourse (that’s currently 16 in most American states), it seems to mean consenting to parental control. At age 13 a family link member can opt out of the program. When this happens the “parent” will be notified and the child’s “devices will be temporarily locked and unusable”. Originally the program simply ended at age 13, so this is an improvement. The current behavior is annoying, but it’s not a deal-breaker.

I wondered if there was another transition at age 18 (adulthood in the US and most nations). It’s not currently documented anywhere, but Google’s Help service responded to my inquiry (!). They say 13 is the only transition, there are no further changes at age 18. That’s very good news for vulnerable adults.

Android’s multiple controls are enough to knock off Qustodio, MMGuardian and the rest for Android customers. That leaves only the iOS market now, and Apple has made it quite hard for third party vendors to support this range of services.

When it comes to protecting children and vulnerable adults, Android has pulled well ahead of iOS. We can only hope Apple will feel some pressure to match what Google has done.

– fn –

[1] These are known as ‘mobile device management’ tools. That term is most often used in the context of business and education, but it includes this use.
[2] iOS devices have remote management capabilities, but Apple doesn’t offer tools to work with them. They have left this for third-party vendors.
[3] This kind of software is quite hard to test, which may explain why there are so few serious reviews. The more I learn about how Apple mobile device management works the more I understand why vendors struggle to provide a good solution. This can’t be a very profitable niche, especially now that Google provides Family Link for free, and all vendors know there’s a risk that Apple will provide their own solution and wipe out the industry.
[4] G Suite users have G Suite mobile device management, but it’s designed for different kinds of concerns and is a poor fit to the family user.

Update 10/6/2018Gordon’s Tech: Only Apple can provide family mobile device management for iOS. Might require governmental pressure.