Wireless services add more parental controls

Image: A girl speaks on a cell phone outside school
More wireless carriers are offering parental controls to ease mom and dad's concerns about the 'who' and 'when' of texting and calling.Jacqueline Roggenbrodt / AP file

Pencils? Check. Notebooks? Check. Cell phone? Checkbook.

Nearly three-quarters of 13- to 17-year-olds in the United States have cell phones, according to the Yankee Group, and “tweens,” children between ages 8 and 12, are the next age range that wireless companies hope will carry a mobile in their back-to-school backpacks.

To help make the idea more appealing to parents, more carriers are offering them the tools to keep a tighter rein on their children’s cell phone use, from limiting the amount of texting their children can do, to setting the hours of when the phone can be used.

“Parental controls are getting robust now,” said Anne Collier, a mom who is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, and editor of NetFamilyNews.org.

AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile, for example, “offer the ability to have parents turn off text messaging, or block specific numbers, time and days, or phone-based purchases,” she said.

Verizon Wireless is expected to start offering the same kind of services in the weeks ahead.

The three carriers, along with Sprint and Alltel, already provide a free service to parents who want to limit their children’s access from phones to certain mobile Web sites. The companies also offer add-on GPS locator programs at a cost of up to $10 a month.

“Family-oriented services are garnering a huge interest in the wireless industry today, as carriers are looking to tap the capacity of this potential gold mine,” said analyst Deepa Karthikeyan, in a recent report for Current Analysis.

Jill Aldort, senior analyst of consumer mobility applications at the Yankee Group, said parental controls and monthly “family plans” are key to carriers gaining new subscribers.

“There’s not an incredible lot of growth left in the teen market — 13- to 17-year-olds — because the overall wireless market in the U.S. has been slowing down during the past few years,” she said.

“So, there has been a lot of focus on targeting teens through the family plans that carriers offer. Verizon and AT&T, in particular, have very strong market share with their family plans. It’s basically a bucket of minutes that can be shared across all of the members of your family for an add-on cost of $10 for each line. It has been an incredibly successful way to target the teen market, so much so, that 85 percent of teens are on family plans.”

In the 8- to 12-year-old “tween” market in the U.S., about 41 percent have cell phones, with the majority “heavily weighted toward 11- to 12-year olds,” Aldort said.

“There’s still several opportunities for growth there,” she said. “What becomes a bit more of a struggle with the tween market is that obviously, the tweens aren’t going to buy the cell phones themselves. The decision-making process is virtually 100 percent in their parents’ hands, so it’s a matter of do parents think their child needs a cell phone?

“The other question beyond that is, parents have a fear of overage charges, and ask, ‘If I get my child a cell phone, is my cell phone bill going to be $500 a month?’ ”

There’s good reason to be concerned. Time spent talking on the phone is an issue, but so is texting, the “glue of teens’ social circles,” said Aldort.

In the United States in 2007, there were 363 billion text messages sent, more than four times the 81 billion text messages sent in 2005, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry group.

Meanwhile, total minutes of cell phone use increased, but on a lesser scale, going from 1.5 trillion minutes in 2005 to 2.1 trillion in 2007.

Preferring texting to talking
The Yankee Group surveyed 1,500 teens about their cell phone habits earlier this year, and found that 70 percent of them said they “always or often” send text messages to their friends instead of using the phone to call them.

When they’re at home, nearly 60 percent prefer to send their friends text messages rather than using the home phone to make calls, Aldort said.

T-Mobile recently announced a “Family Allowances” program, which lets parents set limits for minutes, messages and downloads, such as games or ring tones, and block calls and messages to and from specific numbers. Parents set the controls at T-Mobile’s Web site.

The program has an “introductory” rate of $2 a month. A T-Mobile spokesperson said there is no word yet on when that rate will change, and what it ultimately will be.

AT&T Wireless already has in place a “Smart Limits for Wireless” plan for $4.99 a month per line. It lets parents set usage limits for texting, instant messaging and music, video and Web downloads, as well as establish a list of who can call or text. Parents can block incoming and outgoing calls and text messages, as well as the times of day the phone can be used, and set a dollar limit for downloadable purchases.

AT&T say that “Smart Limits” cannot be used for setting a monthly limit on the number of minutes a child uses.

Verizon Wireless adding features
Verizon Wireless will expand its parental control features, which now let parents block services such as text messaging or Web downloads, for free.

Parents will soon be able to “manage the number of phone calls, text messages, picture messages” that are allowed, among other features, said Jack McArtney, Verizon Wireless’ associate director of advertising and content standards.

“Parents have asked for those tools,” he said. “What they want is the knobs and dials that they can turn and adjust as the needs of their families change.”

There is no word yet on what pricing will be.

Two years ago, Sprint started offering certain models of Sanyo phones with built-in control features that let parents put limits on their child’s mobile usage, as well as turn the phone’s camera and mobile Web off, at no additional charge, said Emmy Anderson, the company’s communications manager.

In the past year, the company added other makes of phones that can restrict incoming and outgoing calls to numbers entered in the phone book,” such as mom and dad, Anderson said.

“On all phones, incoming text messages from specific numbers can be blocked by logging into the customer’s (online) My Sprint account and entering the numbers to be blocked,” she said.

“Text messaging capability can also be completely disabled on all phones by calling Sprint customer care. There is no charge for either service.”

Alltel also lets parents turn off text messaging, at no charge. Parents cannot block numbers for voice calls or outgoing messages, but can block incoming messges from specific e-mail addresses, Web domain names and instant messaging aliases, said an Alltel spokeswoman.

Consider your own ‘contract’
Before going phone shopping, parents who are getting their child their first cell phone may want to consider downloading a free copy of ConnectSafely’s “Contract for Responsible Cell Phone Use,” done in conjunction with CTIA’s Wireless Foundation.

The one-page document has 12 promises the child is asked to make, including following “all school rules about cell phone use,” answering the phone if a parent calls, not using the phone to “share photos that could embarrass me or others now or in the future,” and to not “disable any parental controls” on the phone.

The latter can be a problem “because kids can figure stuff like that out,” Collier said.

“Technology isn’t the total solution. Kids have so many workarounds. They can use their friends’ phones. If parents aren’t vigilant, or don’t have rules, kids can be texting with their friends all night long with their phone under the pillow.”

More important than the contract itself is parent-child communication, she said.

The contract isn’t a substitute for talking about how a cell phone should or should not be used, Collier said, as well as for continuing discussions.

“If parents have concerns, they should voice them, but not in a confrontational way,” she said. “It can be something like, ‘I’m a little concerned about your grades, or that you’re not getting enough sleep at night. So, I think we’re going to need to have a new rule, and that is, that the phone goes off — and in my hands — at 9 p.m.,’ or something like that.”

With technology and kids, she said, “there has to be rules, not just tools.”