Google offers some great services for kids, but over the last year some have been phased out in favour of non-kid-friendly replacements. I take a look at the move from Google Play Music to YouTube Music and from Hangouts to Google Chat.
Music Streaming Apps
Google Play Music
I signed up to a Google Play Music (GPM) subscription about five years ago. For £14.99 a month, it offered access to a huge online music library for up to six family members. Music can be accessed from phones, in the car (via Bluetooth and Android Auto in my case), on PCs, smart speakers, smart TV sticks, and more. I’ve even got an old Hi-Fi hooked up to a Chromecast Audio, which gives new life to some ancient speakers. One of the main benefits was the ability to upload any music you own to the service, which would then be available for streaming. I have a load of obscure singles from the ’90s, the B-sides of which weren’t on GPM, so this was great.
I gave my kids access to a limited profile on GPM which allowed them to listen to albums that I’d chosen to download onto their devices. Despite both being under ten, they use hand-me-down phones from me and my wife. They’re currently a Pixel 2 XL and a Pixel 3 without SIM cards, basically as small tablets that connect to the home Wi-Fi or our local hotspots when we’re out and about. This worked well. They could listen to the Trolls soundtrack or The Imperial March for the umpteenth time, cast to a Nest Mini, and have access whenever they wanted.
YouTube Music (Premium)
Then Google announced that Google Play Music would be replaced by YouTube Music. This started out as a very barebones affair which didn’t initially support the uploaded music and crucially wasn’t available for kids. They promised that features would be added (and eventually the uploaded music support was transferred from GPM) but support for kids’ accounts never arrived. Children under 13 years of age can’t access YouTube Music. So rather than paying £14.99 / month for four people to access GPM, I’m now paying the same amount for two people to access YouTube Music.
One workaround would be to create adult accounts (effectively lying about their age) in order to give them access, but this would mean losing all the benefits of the Family Link, and would let them access any music on YouTube, much of which is really not suitable for young ears.
Spotify Kids provides a curated version of Spotify – the market leading service in the music streaming world. Spotify works in all the same places as GPM and can even be set as the default music service on Google’s own smart speakers. Not only that, but Spotify offers a family plan for the same price of £14.99 / month.
Amazon Music Unlimited also offers a family plan for £14.99 / month. Parental restrictions seem to be rather limited.
I’ve used Hangouts since my first Android phone, and found it convenient that it was built into the Gmail web interface. I could chat from my phone, and get notifications on my PC if needed while I was working, without needing to install a dedicated app. As everyone moved on to Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Signal, etc, I stuck with Hangouts for family chats. I added the kids so they could send me messages and vice-versa, without needing a SIM in their phones, and without needing to sign up for yet another account.
Google attempted to replace Hangouts with Allo in 2016, but it didn’t take and was finally abandoned in 2019, joining the growing pile of Google services that had been left to die (RIP Google Reader #neverforget). Google Chat was originally intended to be a Slack / Teams competitor for users of its GSuite / Google Business suite, but it was announced in 2020 that it would be available for all Hangouts users. Sadly, when attempting to install Google Chat on my kids’ phones, I’m told that it’s not available to these accounts.
As a result of the US’s Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA), companies are forbidden from collecting data on users under the age of 13 and using it for marketing purposes. Presumably due to this restriction, many companies have chosen the easy option of blocking children under this age from using their apps. This has the negative effect of encouraging some parents to set up accounts with a fake date of birth in order to allow their kids onto the app. As with the music streaming apps, this is a risky course of action, as kids will potentially no longer be covered by Family Link (or similar parental supervision apps).
Messenger Kids is a kid-friendly version of Facebook’s Messenger app. It seems like a decent offering, and allows the parent to manage the child’s contact list. However, despite Facebook’s claims of privacy, I’m not too keen on getting my children into their ecosystem at this stage.
JusTalk Kids is, as the name suggests, a version for of the JusTalk app that’s tailored to kids. As well as providing a safe chat and video calling app, it also allows sign-ups without a phone number – essential for kids who have tablets (or in my case, phones without a SIM).
Family App comes from Family Digital, inc. It offers a plethora of services including chat that supports end-to-end encryption. There’s also a private family message board which allows members to share messages and photos with the family without sharing with the whole world.
I wanted to stick with Google’s services, but it’s looking like they either don’t care about families with kids, or can’t be bothered to deal with the legal issues around restricting unsuitable content. Family Link is a great way to manage your kids’ permissions, spending limits and screen time, and the YouTube Kids app seems like they know what they should be doing, so why haven’t they done the same with their music and chat apps?