About six years ago, a 5-year-old girl asked her mother why her Google search for "train" failed to show her anything about Thomas the Tank Engine, the cheeky cartoon character that's a favorite for kids.
It was just a small shortcoming, but it set in motion a project that now means the tech giant is opening its doors to tens of millions of people in the US: kids aged 12 and under.
Preteens previously weren't allowed to use Gmail, leave YouTube comments, store pictures on Google Photos, download Android apps or do anything else that required a Google account. Now Google is opening up access in conjunction with the launch of a tool called Family Link for phones powered by Google's Android software. It lets parents set up kids' accounts, monitor what apps they're using, track kids' physical location, govern app installation and establish "screen time" limits.
"The goal in every area of Google is to improve what we do for kids," said Pavni Diwanji, a Google engineering vice president. It was her own daughter, now 11 years old, who searched for Thomas the Tank Engine, so she had a personal stake in the project's success.
The shift is technologically, legally and socially complicated but inevitable. Already 56 percent of kids in the US aged 8 to 12 have mobile phones, and text messaging was core to kids' communications long before the modern smartphone era began a decade ago. Google is ahead of many competitors, but it's still catching up to the reality of growing up in the digital age.
Parental controls can help with young kids, but they're only a start, said Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that gauges the age-appropriateness of movies, apps, websites and other content.
"No tool is going to substitute for the guidance and rules parents can put in place for kids," Knorr said. "What we really recommend is that parents help their kids learn how to regulate their own usage."
New Google users
The move could help lots of kids get online. But it helps Google, too. It's an opportunity to bring millions of new users into the fold -- and to hook them when they're young and impressionable. Tech companies like Apple and Microsoft have for decades tried to win over schools and students. After all, today's students are tomorrow's customers.
These days, many under-13 kids have Google accounts even though it goes against Google's terms of service. And judging by my chats at the bus stop and PTA meetings, it's often with parents' knowledge. It lets kids download Android apps from the Google Play Store, communicate with Gmail and keep up to date on the family online calendar.
Family Link requires kids to have a new account on a new or freshly wiped phone. But earlier accounts can't be used. Google is looking at the possibility of migrating existing accounts, Diwanji said.
The app is in a limited testing phase for now. You'll need a phone running the new Android 7 Nougat software, although a handful of models running the earlier Marshmallow version will be compatible too. Parents in the US can request access to the app at the Family Link site. Google plans to release the app publicly early this summer in the US and later this year in other countries as Google navigates local laws.
The app requires parents and kids to have Android devices, though Google is working on some support for Apple iPhones. Google also plans to extend support to Chromebooks, the inexpensive laptops that run Google's Chrome OS software.
Don't expect kids with a taste for independence to embrace Family Link.
Here was my own 11-year-old's response when I introduced him: "So you can watch me creepily? That's what all the other parent stuff does. Why would I want that? I don't get anything out of that."
Parents trying to introduce the technology might fare better if they introduce the Family Link along with a first phone. Then it's something being added, not removed, from the child's life.
But as for my son's "watch me creepily" worry, Family Link takes a measured approach.
Although parents can see what Android apps kids used and how much over the last week and month, they can't see things like what websites they visited or who they sent messages to or e-books they read. Kids can also find out exactly what parents see, because they get the app, too.
"We don't want kids thinking Google has built spyware,"
said Saurabh Sharma, Family Link's product manager. "That's where transparency comes in."
Google also sees Family Link as an opportunity for parents and kids to discuss things like rules, choices and online behavior. Why do parents want to see where kids are? What's the reason for limiting screen time on the weekends to three hours?
At age 13, when kids can set up their own Google accounts on their own, Family Link restrictions are removed.
It may seem bizarre that it took Google so long to cater to kids, but there are good reasons.
Legal constraints like the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) mean it's not simple to operate a service that includes kids. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Flickr and many other services have 13-and-up age requirements.
Lots of kids already have a place in the Google world through schools. Google offers G Suite, its online services like email and Google Docs for free. Chromebooks are increasingly popular in schools, too. But schools often restrict student accounts, though, limiting whether kids get access with their phones or blocking kids from emailing a photo to grandma.
Family Link dovetails with other child-focused Google changes, Diwanji said. That including tweaking search results for children. So maybe the next 5-year-old will have an easier time finding Thomas the Tank Engine.
Family Link features
For more details, check CNET's help on how to use Family Link. Among things parents can do:
- Track kids' location.
- Require permission for new app installation and see which apps kids have installed.
- Put kids' phones to sleep when it's time for dinner, homework or bed.
- Set a "bedtime" and sleeping hours during which devices can't be used.
- See what apps kids have used in the last 7 and 30 days.
- Loosen search settings from the default safe search setting, designed to keep out adult content like porn.
- Set a new unlock code if kids forget their own.
- Ring the phone's ringer to find lost devices.
- Set which apps get access to the camera or microphone.