How Google and Amazon are hooking kids from an early age

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Google announced a notable update to YouTube Kids this week, one that gives parents a range of tools to tailor the app for their kids. Among the new features is one that lets parents create individual profiles for each of their offspring. They can set each kid up with their own passcode to keep siblings out — though parents can override it — and the general design now reflects the child’s age. This revamp is the latest in a line of recent initiatives from big tech firms as they double down on efforts to suck kids into their ecosystems.

Child’s play

More than half of all primary and secondary school-aged kids in the U.S. (some 30 million pupils) use Google education apps like Docs and Gmail for classwork. And much of this use is underpinned by Chromebooks, which now represent more than half of all devices that ship to U.S. schools, according to reports.

Of course, Google makes money directly from these devices. But the bigger picture is what’s important here — it’s all about creating consumer habits. High school students are encouraged to transfer their Google documents and files from their education accounts to a personal consumer account after they graduate. Google hopes in this way to keep them on board through university and into their working lives.

Against this backdrop, Google’s actions elsewhere start to make even more sense — the company wants to create the ultimate sticky experience, both in school and at home, hooking kids from a young age.

To target kids though, you ultimately need to target the parents. Similar to the YouTube Kids app, Google recently launched its new Family Link app that lets parents remotely control and monitor their kids’ device usage and view what apps are being used most often through regular reports.

Parents are given peace of mind and a degree of control, and kids get spoon-fed lots of Google-flavored Android goodness.

Above: Family Link: App Control

As of a few weeks ago, Google’s voice-activated smart speaker, Google Assistant, offers 50 apps and games for kids —  covering such popular pastimes as musical chairs and beatboxing. To enjoy these offerings, parents are required to create Family Link accounts and set up unique voice identification for their children.

Naturally, Google is not alone in pushing its child-focused products. Amazon, for example, has been cementing its own efforts to get kids hooked up to its microcosm.

Amazon has for years already offered a kid-friendly content service called FreeTime, which includes a “whitelisted” selection of apps, games, books, videos, websites, and so on. Back in April, the company introduced a bunch of new tools to help parents stay better informed about what their kids are watching, reading, and doing within FreeTime.

A new parental dashboard serves up analytics to show how much screen time a child has used across all kinds of content, and it allows parents to dig down deeper to assess their child’s reading activity over the previous few months.

Above: Amazon FreeTime: Parental dashboard

Similar to Google, Amazon is also increasingly targeting kids through its Alexa digital assistant. Back in August, the company launched its first Alexa skills built for kids, including games and stories from well-known kiddie brands like Sesame Street and SpongeBob SquarePants.

And let’s not forget about Amazon’s bread and butter, the giant online shopping mall known as Amazon.com. Last month, the ecommerce giant announced that it would allow teenagers (13 to 17 years old) to shop using separate logins that are attached to their parents’ accounts. Kids aren’t given complete freedom to buy whatever they want, however. Parents can choose to receive a text or email that shows the cost of an item and the shipping address before giving approval, though more trusting parents can simply set an overall maximum budget if they wish.

Amazon also launched a new $5.49 monthly Prime Student subscription in the U.S. for students who are unwilling to commit to a full year.

Eye on the prize

All this recent kid-friendly activity serves to remind us all how eager technology companies are to get consumers sucked into their worlds from as early an age as possible.

While Google’s YouTube Kids app update is undoubtedly useful for parents and kids alike, there’s no question that Google wants its services to develop and evolve with children so they remain loyal throughout their lives.

“After talking to parents all over, we know that kids who love the YouTube Kids app are getting older and want a platform that’ll grow with them,” said YouTube engineering director Balaji Srinivasan.

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