What Android's Family Link App and New Digital Well-Being Features Mean for You

When you can see -- and control -- how much time you spend on your devices, it helps the whole family make mindful choices. By Christine Elgersma
What Android's Family Link App and New Digital Well-Being Features Mean for You

Parents have been grappling with finding the right balance between screens and other activities for years. Now the tech industry is trying to address those concerns -- for parents and kids. Android Pie, Google's latest version of its Android operating system, includes Digital Wellbeing, a feature that lets you see what you're using -- and how much time you're spending on your phone/device -- and enable settings to feel more in control of those choices.

Android users can also use Google's Family Link app, which lets parents monitor and manage kids' devices. While Digital Wellbeing is for personal use, and Family Link is for parents to use with their kids, they can both help you strike a healthy balance between your online and offline lives.

Digital Wellbeing and Family Link are similar to the latest version of Apple's operating system, iOS 12, which has a new feature called Screen Time that lets you monitor and control your kid's device and your own, so no matter what kind of devices your family uses, you'll have some new insights and tools to use around finding that balance.

Our overview is divided into a few sections: "Usage Tracking," "Ways to Disconnect," and "Reduce Interruptions." Check out the new 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 app, 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, if 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 means 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.

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

As a separate app, Family Link isn't part of Digital Wellbeing (and was released way before Pie). But they share a similar goal -- to make people aware of their device use -- which is the first step in developing healthy screen habits. As with any parental controls, they're best used along with guidance and ongoing conversations to help your kids learn to manage their own media use. 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. There's no way to set time limits on individual apps, but you can completely block them.

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.

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 movies, Everyone 10+ 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 -- and 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," which 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 it 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 when 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.

About Christine Elgersma

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Christine Elgersma wrangles learning and social media app reviews and creates parent talks as Senior Editor, Parent Education. Before coming to Common Sense, she helped cultivate and create ELA curriculum for a K-12 app... Read more

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