Android phones are getting a powerful parental control upgrade

Kids texting on their phones while walking.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

While Google’s Family Link gives parents much-needed control over what apps children can download and use, who they talk to via the Messages app cannot currently be controlled. As we explain in our Family Link review, texting apps like Messages can have time limits applied or be blocked entirely, but there aren’t any granular settings allowing some contacts but not others.

It looks like Google is planning to close this loophole soon. A code dive by AssembleDebug for PiunikaWeb has revealed some hidden flags on version 20240416_00_RC01 of the Google Messages app that suggest more parental control is incoming.

As the screenshots below demonstrate, some conversations are marked with “Ask your parent for approval” in the main conversation list view. Opening up one of these threads makes it even more explicit, with the text “To send, ask your parent for approval” at the bottom of the screen.

Screenshots from the app

(Image credit: PiunikaWeb)

The site says these measures will apply to RCS (Rich Communication Services) and old-school SMS/MMS messages within Google Messages. It seems highly likely that this will be something that can be controlled via an updated version of Family Link, though there’s no proof from the current code that this is the case.

One part of the puzzle

This seems like a sensible improvement from Google. The current binary choice of blocking Messages entirely or leaving them completely open doesn’t leave any room for nuance. Chatting to trusted friends is pretty important to ensure children aren’t left out, but talking to anyone leaves a child open to cyberbullying or worse.

Of course, the Messages app is just one way that people talk to each other online, and parents need to be aware that this isn’t a catch-all solution. 

True, Family Link can block the installation of apps, but parents need a certain amount of internet literacy to know which ones can be used for two-way communication. It’s pretty obvious that WhatsApp and Telegram are dedicated messaging apps, but not everyone knows that posting pictures is only one part of 2024 Instagram’s functionality. 

Of course, whether children should be allowed a smartphone at all is a wider question, with the UK government apparently mulling over a ban on sales to under 16

We investigated whether you should buy your kid a phone last year. Surprisingly, age wasn’t the main factor the experts we spoke to suggested should influence the decision, and each child’s circumstances are different.

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Alan Martin

Freelance contributor Alan has been writing about tech for over a decade, covering phones, drones and everything in between. Previously Deputy Editor of tech site Alphr, his words are found all over the web and in the occasional magazine too. When not weighing up the pros and cons of the latest smartwatch, you'll probably find him tackling his ever-growing games backlog. Or, more likely, playing Spelunky for the millionth time.