Many parents are understandably reluctant to give their children fully featured cell phones, complete with texting, email, cameras, web access and video games. (For buying advice, read our article Cell Phones for Kids: Important Buying Advice.) News reports of teens sending explicit text or photo messages can give grownups nightmares, as can outrageous bills for hours-long calls to friends or excessive downloading of ringtones and games.
Over the past few years, major providers like AT&T and T-Mobile have addressed this problem by giving parents tools to control what their kids can and can’t do with their cell phones, or at least monitor who they’re talking or texting with. (One might take the view, as do many sources we’ve found, that these companies are more interested in adding to their incomes than in protecting children.) For anywhere from $2 to $10 per month parents can restrict text messages, block incoming phone numbers or limit calls to specific geographical locations, among other options.
Carriers with the best parental controls
AT&T offers some of the most comprehensive blocking options. Their Smart Limits program (*Est. $5 per month) allows parents to set caps on the number of text messages or downloads per day, as well as restrict when the phone can be used, who can be called or texted, and what kinds of content can be accessed online. (When it was first launched, Smart Limits’ blocking was so robust that it prevented return calls from 911 operators; that issue has since been cleared up.) T-Mobile’s Family Allowances (*Est. $2 per month) and Verizon’s “Take Control” plan (*Est. $5 per month) offer similar features. Sprint offers a free service for some phones that lets parents restrict texting and other activities.
- AT&T Link:
- Verizon Link:
Alternative parental control applications
Mobile Spy is a downloadable parental-control application that has attracted some attention. However, it is only compatible with some advanced smartphones, such as BlackBerrys and phones using the Windows Mobile operating system, as well as some Motorola handsets. Mobile Spy monitors incoming and outgoing calls, emails, texts and photo messages, notifying parents if contact is made with an unapproved caller (all callers are considered unapproved until their status is changed by parents via the Mobile Spy website). Reviewers have been fairly positive about Mobile Spy, but say the lack of universal compatibility limits its appeal. Tracking your child’s location
Short of blocking their children’s ability to kill time with text messages and pictures, parents can at least monitor their whereabouts. The most ambitious of these tracking programs is Verizon’s Chaperone (*Est. $10 per month per child line), which lets parents monitor the location of their child’s phone, either from a home computer or from their own mobile phone. The included Child Zone function lets parents set up specific geographical boundaries; if a child leaves the area, the parent is notified via text message. For the same price, Sprint’s Family Locator (*Est. $5 per month to track up to four phones) will check on your child’s location at specified times and let you see where he or she has been in the course of a day, via maps or text reports.
Parents must educate themselves
When all is said and done, these types of applications will only get you so far, especially if your kids are more tech-savvy than you are and can circumvent them. In an excellent article published in October 2008, PCMike.com blogger Mike Wendland scolds parents for equipping their kids with state-of-the-art cell phones whose advanced functions they don’t understand, and stresses the need for communication and instruction, including verification by use of parental-control software. “Kids, because they are immature, are by nature going to be impulsive and irresponsible,” Wendland writes. “You, Mom and Dad, have no such excuse.” The bottom line: educate yourself, talk to your kids and use parental controls as backup, not as the sole source of discipline.