(Pocket-lint) - There comes a point when your child needs their own phone. As a parent, it's a fork in the road: on one hand a phone provides a point of contact as your child becomes more independent, on the other it's a gateway to the darker side of online life. 

For many, the pros will outweigh the cons, especially if you have a child who is about to head off to secondary school. You want to know they arrive safely and you want them to be able to contact you if they need to. 

You could get a feature phone - like the Nokia 3310 - but in reality, it's likely to be time for the first smartphone.

Why choose an Android phone?

The immediate advantage that Android offers is price. Let's be honest, while many children will want the latest iPhone, sending them into the wild with a £900 phone is asking for trouble.

In reality, there's very little meaningful difference in functionality between iPhone and Android: they both offer almost exactly the same apps and services with only a few Apple services you won't get - like iMessage or FaceTime. 

What you can do, however, is give your child a powerful new phone that's perhaps a third of the price. There are lots of options for affordable phones, but we highly rate the Moto G family, the latest Moto G8 Power has some distinct advantages over flagship phones, like the 2-day battery life.

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Of course, you can use an old handset (which many people choose to do), but the major downside there is that the battery is likely to be poor and there's the chance if it's over 3 years old that it won't be getting the latest security updates from Google. 

Your account or a new Google account? 

This is a big decision to make: (a) do you set-up that child on a device with your account or (b) do you create an account for them?

Standard Google accounts have a minimum age of 13 (as do Facebook accounts), so if you're signing up a child for an account, they need to be that old, or you have to tell a white lie to get that account registered. Remember that even a 13-year-old with a Google account gets full access to services like YouTube, although there are also child accounts you can now setup, more on that below.

The route you take makes a difference: any Android phone can accept a Google account, but not all phones accept multiple users. Devices in a fairly pure Android form do, like Motorola or Nokia, which means you can sign in with your account, i.e., option (a) then setup a profile for your child as a safe space. 

Alternatively you can sign in with your account and then disable features, although ultimately, it's your full adult account, with your payment details and so on, which may cause problems later down the line when the child wants their own phone.

Ultimately, we suspect many will opt for option (b) to create a new Google account and the start of that child's online independence. That's the option we'd recommend, especially as Google how offers tools to manage child accounts. The easiest way to get started is to setup that account in a web browser and setup a family group on families.google.com to link everyone together.

Use Google Family Link

Google Family Link provides an avenue for a parent to set-up a child account and then supervise it, which addresses many of the issues surrounding setting up a phone. Family Link will set many of the elements detailed below to the appropriate settings, but also means that the parent then has a Google Family, something that can also be used to share purchased content and a payment methods, if you want. We'd advise against sharing a payment method - you're probably better using Google Play gift cards instead, although they can only be redeemed by those over 13.

In theory it resolves the above issue, giving you a controllable child account that a parent can manage. Google Family Link is not available in all regions, in which case we've detailed all the settings below that you should check and manage on your child's device.

To get started with Google Family Link, you'll need to download the app from Google Play. There are two versions of the app, the parent app that you'll need on your phone and the child app and you'll need the correct app on each device and best of all it's a free service, included as part of Google's service.

Google Family Link is a good starting point and offers simple step-by-step setup instructions, allowing you to set custom levels of control across devices, including things like Chromebooks and tablets too - and there's also an iOS app if you want to have it on an Apple device.

What can Google Family Link control?

Google family link gives you controls over:

  • Google Play purchases, content restrictions, approval for app installs
  • Filters on Chrome, including custom black and whitelisting for websites
  • SafeSearch to remove sexually explicit and violet results in Google Search
  • Google Assistant app access and voice matching
  • Android app activity and limits
  • Location tracking to find your child's device
  • Account info
  • Google Photo sharing
  • Google account sign in controls across new devices
  • Activity control such as web and YouTube history

Once setup, you'll be able to use the app on the parent phone to oversee those areas you want to protect, granting permissions for apps, as well as being able to set time limits - for the whole device or for particular apps. You can enforce bedtimes when the device can't be used too and location tracking means you can easily find your child.

Perhaps the downside of Family Link when it comes to parental controls is you can easily omit apps from the limits. So you can't, for example, exclude messaging from the time limits or bed time, so if your child at a sleepover and wants to get in touch, they can't, so it takes some playing around the get the setup you want.

Parental controls within Android 

If you decide that you don't want to use Google Family Link - or if it's not available in your region for whatever region, there's a range of controls within Android to look at to make sure protections are in place. These are also the protections you should be using if you decide to use an Android device that's signed into your account, rather than one for the child themselves.

It's worth noting that these areas put some controls in place, but there's nothing like keyword filtering in messaging, and nothing to stop a using things like Google Docs to share inappropriate content within seemingly innocuous documents.

Parental controls in Google Play 

Despite not allowing accounts until you're 13, Google Play actually has parental controls which you need to enable. These govern all the Google Play properties - apps, movies, TV, magazines and music.

  • Open the Google Play app
  • Tap the hamburger menu in the top left-hand corner
  • Scroll down to Settings and select
  • Tap parental controls 

Within this area, you can set age ratings - PEGI for games, the familiar U, 12, 15 for movies and TV, as well as restricting explicit content in magazines and music, which is a great starting point. Note the Play Music app also has a separate control for limiting explicit lyrics in mixes.

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Controlling all these will mean that you've taken some steps to protect your child from content they might stumble across when searching within Android's catalogue. 

You, as parent, can also set the PIN on this area so it can't be changed by the child and this PIN should be separate to the PIN for the device or for your device, as kids will invariably learn your PIN.

Parental controls in Google search - SafeSearch 

Controlling apps and accessible content is one thing, but modern devices provide access to everything through search and the browser. There are some settings to lock these down, however. 

Google SafeSearch aims to filter out explicit results like pornography in search results - spanning images and video too. Google admits that it's not 100 per cent accurate, however. 

To turn on SafeSearch, you'll have to open up the Google app on your Android device. Depending on your phone type, this might be an app with the G icon, or accessible in the settings, or both. If you have the Google Search widget on your homepage, you can tap the G at the left of that too. 

This is what you're looking for:

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Here's how to get there:

  • Open the G app (Google Search app).
  • Tap the "More" menu in the bottom right-hand corner.
  • Tap Settings, then General.
  • Toggle on SafeSearch filter.

It's also worth noting that Google does nothing to protect this setting, and anyone can turn it off again, unless you use Family Link (above).

Parental controls in YouTube 

YouTube is catnip for the young. It's often the most requested area, the starting point to solving problems, researching everything from make-up tutorials to recipes, cartoon episodes to Minecraft guides.

YouTube is also a bit like the Wild West, in some ways unregulated and full of content you probably don't want your child getting to. You could opt for YouTube Kids, but even that's not really safe.

To find the content controls in YouTube:

  • Open the YouTube app
  • Tap on your profile picture top right and tap Settings
  • Then tap on General
  • Then toggle on the Restricted Mode

Again, Google states that this isn't 100 per cent accurate, but it will mean that some content flagged as inappropriate won't appear. 

Also, like search, there's nothing to stop this setting being turned off by the child user. 

Parental control apps 

While Android's specific controls essentially stop there they only provide a layer of protection. Trust plays a huge part in your child's use in this situation - and trust and education in online safety should be a big part of your role as a parent. 

Setting rules and boundaries, as well as monitoring what your child is doing online remains your responsibility. It's here that parental control apps can help. There are lot on offer ranging from full-on spying to lighter controls. 

We can recommend Screen Time, which is an effective balance, providing a little more protection and control for your child, although there are lots of options out there.

Screen Time features and benefits 

  • Set usage limits and bedtimes
  • A reward system to grant more time for chores
  • Prevent and control the installation of new apps
  • Block access to particular apps 

There are lots of advantages to using something like Screen Time. Once installed on the child's device, control is granted to the app on an adult's device (with Android and iPhone supported), so you get controls without constant physical intervention. 

It will let you control the apps that are installed, needing permission for new apps, meaning you can avoid spamware, spyware or anything inappropriate.

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You can closely govern times, choosing how long each day apps can be used - while also having granular control over the apps, so you can have no restriction on some if you choose. You can also just pause the device so it can't be used, if you need to.

Beyond that you get a log of Google searches and websites visited, giving you extra peace of mind that you know what's going on, but Screen Time doesn't go to the extent of letting you read all of your child's messages. You may or may not choose to do that yourself.

Screen Time can also be applied to other devices and other children. Pricing comes in various tiers, with optional extras like location tracing costing more. One of the advantages of using a third-party control app is that once your child is over 13, Google Family Link controls technically don't apply, because it's no longer classed as a child's device. With something like Screen Time, you can ease restrictions, but keep some in place.

Network and Wi-Fi content blocking 

It's not only on the device that you need to think about content, it's off the device too and this is where networks can also provide some more protection.

Depending on the service you opt for, it's worth having the child's phone account in your name, so that you run the account. You can then investigate filtering offered by the network meaning that adult content is blocked. If it's your account, you stay in control of this setting. The shot below is from iD Mobile.

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Again, it's not an absolute solution, but it can go a long way to ensuring that accidental or peer-pressured intentional searches for inappropriate content don't yield fruitful results. 

Pulling this back into your own Wi-Fi network at home - where a lot of a child's device usage is - there are often protections that you can enable via your ISP or router. The below is from BT.

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Many ISPs will let you set internet-wide content filtering. BT, for example, will let you choose categories to block and the level of blocking you want - as well as specific websites that you can black list or white lists, as well as times that filtering operating.

Summing up

There's a lot to consider when it comes to setting-up an Android phone for your child. The most important thing is that you are responsible and you are in control - keeping your child safe online falls to the parent to be responsible and use the necessary tools. 

Children probably won't want these protections and will always encounter people who have no boundaries. Deciding whether your child needs WhatsApp - considering there are almost no privacy controls at all - when yourself or your child's friends are using it is a decision you'll have to make.

Banning smartphones outright isn't the answer to online concerns. While that might keep your child away from the dark side of the web, it will also alienate your child rather than educating them in how to stay safe online. Ultimately, they will end up online sooner or later and it's better to enforce safe and responsible use of devices.

Guiding your child on how to be safe and responsible online is as much a part of modern parenting as encouraging them eat vegetables or the joys of reading a book. Apps and settings are just the tools, the real responsibility still lies in parenting.

Writing by Chris Hall.