Ages & Stages 11-18: Parental Controls for Cell Phones

Cell phones have now absorbed most of the cool digital technology from the past 10 years. Often, the phones are so loaded with features that making an actual phone call seems like an afterthought.

These multi-tasking devices present a real dilemma for parents. Children as young as 6 are eager to have their own cell phones. And many parents are now convinced that being able to reach children anyplace and anytime is a crucial part of keeping them safe.

Unfortunately, the typical cell phone also gives children portable, unsupervised access to multiple modes of communication and virtually unlimited media — as well as to strangers. All the careful precautions parents take in other settings to shield kids from dangerous people and inappropriate media can be undermined as soon as a child gets a cell phone.

Although phone companies were slow to appreciate this problem, more and more are offering parents the kinds of controls routinely found on computers. AT&T, for example, has a new program called Smart Limits which lets parents limit Internet access and block downloads. Another phone service called Kajeet features a pay-as-you-go contract which gives parents control over how much a child spends and when the phone can be used.

Promising as these developments are, they don’t cover most phones and carriers. In general, parents will start the search for a cell phone by asking basic consumer questions about which companies provide good local coverage and reasonable pricing plans. When it comes to a phone for a child, however, they need to take the extra step of asking tough questions that will put them firmly in charge of what their child can and can’t do with the phone.

Is the child old or responsible enough to keep track of a phone? One in four cell phones is lost, stolen or damaged. If your child is going to leave the phone in a backpack, at a friend’s house or on the bench at the soccer game, its usefulness as a security device is seriously compromised.

Is a starter phone a good idea? Some companies offer phone-like devices that can make and receive calls only from numbers programmed in by parents. The colorful glowPhone (FireFly Mobile) allows 20 pre-selected phone numbers. The more utilitarian TicTalk lets kids call specific numbers and play educational games from LeapFrog. Although these phones may be acceptable to very young children, parents of slightly older kids are likely to do better with a very simple, inexpensive cell phone that can be set up to limit both incoming and outgoing calls.

Should the phone have photo or video capabilities? Yes, it’s fun to snap spontaneous pictures anywhere, anytime. On the other hand, the digital images taken by cell phones often compromise privacy. Will your child have the judgment to delete — or never make — images that reveal too much or hurt a friend’s feelings?

Should the phone have GPS? Some phones such as Wherifone use global positioning to pinpoint where a phone is located. That means parents can track kids on very detailed satellite maps. Parents need to think carefully about how this feature might effect the trusting relationship they want to have with their child. Also, GPS raises safety questions of its own because parents aren’t the only ones who can use it to locate a child.

What kind of messaging should your child do? Making a phone call is a relatively public act. People can hear what you say and the call is recorded on the phone bill. Text messaging and IM are much more private. Although kids love these capabilities, it’s much harder for parents to supervise. If you purchase a phone and a service plan that permit IM or text messaging, be sure you can trust your child to use these features only with people he or she knows in real life.

Should the phone be Web-enabled? A child with Web access can visit chat rooms and Web sites, including the growing number of porn sites that are targeting cell phone users. Unfortunately, unlimited Web access is often bundled with text messaging or extra weekend minutes. If you can’t order services a la carte, ask whether your provider can at the very least block adult Web sites. If you have controls on what your child can do on the family computer (and you should!), think twice about providing a phone that doesn’t have comparable safeguards.

How much are you willing to pay? Some parents offer to chip in the cost of a basic phone. If kids want more bells and whistles, they must earn the difference. Also, be clear about what services you will subsidize. How many minutes or text messages does the plan include? How can your child keep track? Will you pay for ring tones? Games? Music downloads? If your child has trouble sticking to a budget, you may want to opt for a pre-paid phone. When the minutes are gone, the phone goes dead.

When can the cell phone be used? Most schools expect kids to leave cell phones in lockers during classes. Make a comparable rule about family dinners, study time, bedtime or other occasions when you want your child’s undivided attention directed toward something other than the incoming ring tone. Be sure teens know they must NEVER use a cell phone while driving.

What are the rules about downloads? Games for cell phones aren’t rated, so preview games your child wants to be sure they aren’t violent or sexual. Ditto for music downloads. Even ringtones should be screened by parents because some are obnoxiously loud or even obscene.

After establishing these guidelines, check the monthly phone bill carefully. Ask about any phone numbers you don’t recognize. Because some kids use cell phones to harass each other, inquire about multiple calls from or to the same number. Also notice when calls are being made. Kids shouldn’t be using phones during school hours or in the middle of the night. Be sure any downloads are acceptable both for cost and content. And ask, every once in a while, to see the photos or videos your child has taken with the phone.

Having a cell phone puts lots of power quite literally in the hands of a child. It’s up to parents to be sure that child understands Spiderman’s Rule: With great power comes great responsibility!

Carolyn Jabs is a former contributing editor for Family PC and mother to three computer savvy kids. Other columns are available on her Web site,