Google’s Family Link app won’t replace role of parents, cyber safety expert warns

Twenty per cent of children spend more than four hours a day online

New internet safety measures aimed at children, which have just been rolled out in Ireland by Google, will not take the place of good parenting and clear channels of communication must always be kept open, a leading advocate of cyber safety among young people has said.

Google’s “Family Link” app allows parents manage and monitor their children’s internet use and will allow parents block access to apps and monitor screen time while generating weekly and monthly activity reports detailing exactly how much time children spend on individual apps.

It will also set daily usage limits and allow parents send devices to “bed” at a certain time after which they will no longer work.

Google has described the technology as a way of helping parents "stay in the loop" while children use the internet. "Our goal with Family Link is to help parents and children explore technology and the digital world together, while making it easier for them to discover, create and share as a family," said Fionnuala Meehan, head of Google Ireland.


"A technical solution of this nature being rolled out by one of the biggest platforms is certainly to be welcomed and the technical controls are great but parents should not rely on them," warned CyberSafeIreland chief executive Alex Cooney.

According to the not-for-profit company’s annual report, less than 20 per cent of parents supervise their children’s online activity while a similar percentage of children spend more than four hours online a day.

Ms Cooney said parental behaviour had to change and parents would have to better "supervise and engage with their children. Just because parental controls of this type are being introduced does not mean parents can step back from their responsibilities."

Ms Cooney also called for an enhanced Government information campaign aimed at promoting a more healthy approach to internet usage.

“What we really need is a sustained awareness campaign that takes inspiration from road safety and healthy eating campaigns. Such a campaign can inform people about the opportunities and the potential dangers that exist when children are in the online space.”

She said research carried out by the not-for-profit organisation had found that as many as 35 per cent of children in third class have their own smart phones with many young people opting to spend First Communion money on such devices.

“This something parents will need to come to grips with and it is only going to become a bigger issue. We have found that by the time they get to sixth class as many as 90 per cent of children have smart phones. It is difficult for parents to keep on top of all of the changes that are happening in a fast-moving online world and the technology keeps evolving, but the key thing we need to do is to talk to their children and to be involved in their world so we understand what is happening.”

The over-use of technology was also raised by the Minister for Health Simon Harris recently when he said children were "nearly being born with an iPad in their hand".

Speaking at the launch of a new five-year campaign by the HSE and Safefood aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of children through better nutritional and increased activity, he expressed concern about the lack of physical activity among young people and the amount of time they spend in front of screens.

“I know myself growing up, as one of our younger politicians, so it’s not that long ago, growing up we were much more active,” he said. “We were still going outside more. We were playing the typical games people play in their housing estates and on their greens and in their sports clubs and now we do see a situation where children are nearly being born with the iPad in their hand and more and more time is being spent looking at the screen.”

The Growing Up iIn Ireland study published by the ESRI this week found that some Irish children as young as seven are spending 21 hours a week on phones, laptops or watching TV while 20 per cent of that age group are either overweight or obese.

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast