AT&T Gives Parents Control Over Kids’ Phones

Published November 1, 2007

Calls at all hours, lasting for hours. Text messages galore. Downloads of ring tones and movies. They all add up to big cell phone bills for tweens and teens–bills in amounts that often shock and dismay the parents who pay for them.

Now AT&T wireless subscribers have a suite of tools designed to eliminate those surprises. The company introduced Smart Limits for Wireless in September, an extension of its parental controls for landline and Internet services. For $4.99 per month, parents can set limits on virtually all services available to AT&T wireless accounts. No special phone is required.

Simple Menus

Using simple point-and-click Web menus, parents can limit the number of minutes their children may use a wireless phone; set limits on numbers of text and instant messages; establish a dollar amount for download purchases such as ring tones and games; control the times of day and days of the week during which the phone may be used; block calls and text messages to and from specific numbers; and filter access to Internet content.

“Not only is this all great news for parents, but it again shows that there is no need for lawmakers to regulate the mobile sector or impose content/communications controls,” wrote Adam Thierer, senior fellow at The Progress & Freedom Foundation (PFF) and author of PFF’s Parental Controls and Online Child Protection. “We don’t need Uncle Sam to become a cell phone nanny. Parents have been empowered to handle this job themselves.”

Parental Choice

As of late September, AT&T was the only large wireless carrier offering Web-based parental controls. Sprint offers one phone model that can be programmed by parents with some similar limits. Verizon offers “Chaperone,” a service using Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology to let parents keep track of a phone’s location.

Parental controls for wireless services are also becoming available from third parties. One such service, RADAR, features a master contact list parents may create for each family member’s cell phone. Only parents have Web site access to make changes to the list. All calls, emails, and text and instant messages are automatically cross-checked against the master list. Parents receive immediate email and phone alerts if an unauthorized contact is made.

Teenagers Accepting

A few weeks after the AT&T wireless limits service was introduced, the Houston Chronicle asked a group of teens for their opinion of the parental control feature. Most said as long as their parents are paying for their cell phones and service, they have the right to control them. Only one was reported as dissenting, suggesting parents should instead try talking to their children about appropriate use of their phones.

AT&T executives said they introduced Smart Limits for Wireless to respond to parent concerns about how and when their kids were using cell phones.

States Stepping In

Government is also stepping in to restrict teens’ phone use. California and 15 other states are considering bills banning teens from using any electronic equipment while driving, while 13 other states plus Washington, DC already have such bans, according to the American Automobile Association.

The legislation generally comes in response to horrific accidents in which there was a strong suggestion that a teen was texting–which requires at least two thumbs for entering text–just before a crash.

Sharon J. Watson ([email protected]) writes from Sugar Land, Texas.