If you watched television during this year’s back-to-school advertising season, you couldn’t help but notice a slew of cell phone commercials hawking products with new parental controls. The features range from limiting text and minute usage to blocking certain Web applications.
“Cell phone providers are definitely stepping up to the plate by offering most parental controls for free,” said Anne Collier, co-director of ConnectSafely.org and editor of NetSafetyNews.org. “They are also offering certain controls at a premium, such as blocking downloads, filtering the Web, or blocking it altogether.
“The market is calling for it, and the industry is responding with good-will marketing,” Collier continued. “Mobile phones are becoming more like mini-computers that do everything [including] downloading applications, photos, and videos, and parents are figuring that out.”
The tween market—defined as children between eight and 12 years old—is a major revenue source for mobile providers. Although tweens will be using the phones, parents will be doing the paying.
“Tweens are one of the few untapped markets left in the United States when it comes to mobile phones,” said Jill Aldort, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group, a Boston-based independent technology research and consulting firm.
“Overall, the U.S. market is 85 percent [already occupied by cell phone users], so the largest opportunity for growth is at the [ends of the age] spectrum—those under 13 and the over-84 age group,” Aldort said.
According to Aldort, most parents are willing to pay up to five dollars per line for parental controls. The key, she says, is packaging them as part of a family plan and marketing the services properly.
“At this point, all the major companies are offering various features” along these lines, Aldort noted. “Verizon has their GPS child locator service, and AT&T and T-Mobile are focusing on usage control. The ideal service would offer both; none of the major carriers are doing that yet.”
So far, policymakers have stayed out of parents’ way in regulating how children use mobile phones. But as smartphones grow in popularity, analysts say proposals to mandate certain safeguards on devices used by children could arise. Such mandates could, in theory, make cell phone usage safer for children, but Collier says they are not necessary.
“Legislation is not the way to go,” Collier said. “Instead, there has to be a combination of available productions in the parental tool box and education. Parents and kids need to work together to use phones smartly. The industry is being proactive, so I don’t see the need for policymakers to get involved.”
Aricka Flowers ([email protected]) writes from Chicago, Illinois.