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How to Use Google's Family Link App

When you can see -- and control -- how much time you spend on your devices, it helps the whole family make mindful choices.

Not long ago, Google baked Digital Wellbeing -- its set of usage reports, notification controls, and settings to help you wind down -- into its operating system, offering Android users more control over their device use. With the addition of easier access to parental controls, Android parents can now manage their kid's devices, too. The collection of features, called "Digital Wellbeing & parental controls," can help your whole family strike a healthy balance between your online and offline lives.

The settings are similar to Apple's Screen Time, which also lets you monitor and control your own device and your kid's, but Google's version requires a separate download of its Family Link app.

Our overview is divided into a few sections: "Usage tracking," "Ways to disconnect," and "Reduce interruptions." Check out the features and get advice on how best to use them. (To skip to our overview of Family Link, click here.)

Usage tracking

  • Usage graph
    When you first open Digital Wellbeing, you'll see a colorful graph that shows how much you've used your device that day, how much you've used individual apps, how many times you've unlocked your phone, and how many notifications you've received. When you tap one of the app-specific areas of the chart, you'll see daily and weekly usage rates of each, and you can adjust each apps' notifications.
    How you can use it: Seeing exactly what's occupying your time is a great way to start conversations about using tech in balance with other important activities. Ask: Why do you spend more time on Snapchat than IXL? It's also great to see which apps take up most of your time so you can think about why that is and how you feel after using them (is this app fun or a bit of a bummer?).

Ways to disconnect

  • Dashboard
    The Dashboard lets you set time limits for individual apps. You can choose the defaults (15 minutes to an hour) or create a custom limit. Once you hit the limit, the app stops working, but you can go back into the Dashboard and change the limit if you're desperate.
    How you can use it: Sit down with your kid, go through your phones, and talk about the limits you want to set for yourselves. You can even build the limits into your Family Media Agreement. After a week, check in and see how you did, which is easy to do with the provided charts. Talk about why you met your goals (or why you didn't), whether you cheated, and what you want to adjust for the next week.

  • Wind Down
    This section lets you set a timer to start and end the Wind Down features -- Grayscale and Do Not Disturb -- automatically. Grayscale drains your phone of color so it's less enticing to use. Do Not Disturb makes it so the phone won't ring, buzz, or light up, depending on which settings you choose. Android also has a Night Light feature that turns your screen an amber color designed to make the screen easier to view in dim light and reduce blue light exposure that can interfere with sleep. You can schedule it or just turn it on as needed.
    How you can use it: These features are meant to help you ease into bedtime and off your phone. So if you or your kid lies in bed scrolling or playing games right up until lights out, Wind Down might help wean you from your evening use.

  • Focus Mode

When you don't want to shut your whole phone down but do want to lessen the temptation to scroll Instagram instead of doing your taxes, you can use Focus Mode. When it's on, you'll see a list of the apps you use most. When you check the boxes next to them, they'll be paused. If you try to access them while Focus Mode is on, you'll get a message saying the app is paused.

How you can use it: Because it's so easy to toggle on and off, Focus Mode isn't going to force you to focus. However, it can add one more barrier between you and cute cat videos. Plus, you can add it to your quick settings so it's easy to turn on when you need it. For a kid who struggles with focus and is motivated to stay on task, this feature could help during homework.

Reduce interruptions

  • Manage notifications
    You've always been able to turn off notifications, but now you can go into Digital Wellbeing and easily shut them down. You just tap the name of the app and tap your preferred notification style, such as whether or not a blue dot appears on the app to alert you of notifications. To adjust sounds, vibrations, and so on, you often need to go into the app itself.
    How you can use it: With the simple toggle next to each app title, this section makes it more convenient to quickly turn notifications on and off. So if your kid jumps onto their phone every time they get a Snap, turning off notifications may stop them from feeling like they need to see the latest every time their phone buzzes. You can also discuss the visual cues that designers use to get our attention.

  • Do Not Disturb
    This is where you can really control how much you're willing to let your phone bother you. You can adjust overall sound and vibration (though not for individual apps) and determine which callers, messages, and reminders are allowed during Do Not Disturb. Depending on your needs, you can set a timer, create a schedule, or have Do Not Disturb come on automatically when you're driving or at an event. Google is also planning to add a "Shush" feature that silences your phone when you turn it facedown.
    How you can use it: While it takes some jiggering, it's nice to be able to tell your phone not to poke and prod you during the day. As your kid learns to regulate their device use, setting a schedule around bedtime is a great way to use this feature so they won't be tempted by alerts and messages.

Family Link

Though you can access and control Family Link from "Digital Wellbeing & parental controls," you'll still have to download it as a separate app. As with any parental control, it's best used along with guidance and ongoing conversations to help your kids learn to manage their own media use, and kids can find ways around it. Here's what you need to know:

It takes two downloads. You and your kid both must have the app installed on your phones. On your phone, you create a family manager account that controls the other devices. (If you want, you can set up Family Link only on your kid's phone or on your own phone if you let your kid use your phone. In that case, set a passcode so kids can't flip between profiles.)

Gmail is required. You'll need to create a Google account for your kid and provide a credit card number for any app purchases your kid might make.

Time after time. You and your kid can see how much time they've spent in each app by day, week, or month.

Lots of limits. You can set an overall time limit for the whole device by day, so, for instance, you can set it up for less screen time on weekdays and more on weekends. You can also set limits on individual apps.

Bonus Time. If their time is about to run out -- or already has -- you can opt to give your kid Bonus Time.

Nighty night. You can set a bedtime after which the phone will be locked.

Remote control. You can lock and unlock your kid's phone on demand.

On the map. If your kid's device is on, has been active recently, and is connected to the internet, you can see their location.

Defaults for content. SafeSearch is on by default, and kids have to ask for approval to download or buy anything. Unless you change the ratings for content in the Google Play section, it seems the defaults are right in the middle: PG-13 for movies, Everyone 10+ for games, etc. Until kids are 13, they can't download the regular YouTube app, only YouTube Kids, and they can't access the YouTube website, either.

Filter it. You can select a wide variety of content and filter settings -- like age ratings for movies, games, etc., and web search filters -- on apps like Chrome, Google Play, Google Search, and other apps to prevent kids from accessing mature content.

Special request. If your kid sends a request to download or buy, you'll see the request in the Family Link app.

App-y news. There's a section of "Apps recommended by teachers" that features apps like Toontastic 3D and Mussila Music School, but this feature is currently only available to certain ages.

Aging out. At 13, kids can opt to control their own accounts. If you want to use Family Link for your teenager who's over 13, they'll have to give you their password. They can opt out at any time, but if they do on a whim (without consulting with you and going through the process of removing Family Link), their phone goes into 24-hour lockdown.

How you can use Family Link: This app is a way to set some overall limits on the road to self-regulation. With younger kids, you can talk about their device use and decide on some time limits together. And though you can't set limits on individual apps, you can talk about the circumstances where you might need to lock an app so it disappears from their device (for example, when their usage is getting in the way of homework). You can also set a bedtime so the device locks at the same time every night to help build healthy habits like getting enough sleep. Shutting the phone down altogether around homework and dinner is also a good way to decrease distractions.

  • Tips for Families. In the parent version of Family Link, there's a section with lots of information about how to talk to your kids about digital literacy topics like protecting safety and privacy online and being kind.
    How you can use it: If you're not sure how to talk to your kids about why you're setting parental controls, what your expectations are for using devices responsibly, or sharing content thoughtfully, the Tips for Families guide might give you some ideas about what content to cover.

Christine Elgersma
Christine Elgersma is the editor for learning app reviews as Senior Editor, Learning Content. Before coming to Common Sense, she helped cultivate and create ELA curriculum for a K-12 app and taught the youth of America as a high school teacher, a community college teacher, a tutor, and a special education instructional aide. Christine is also a writer, primarily of fiction and essays, and loves to read all manner of books. When she's not putting on a spontaneous vaudeville show with her daughter, Christine loves to hike and listen to music, sometimes simultaneously.