One of the hardest things to decide as a parent is when your child should be given a cell phone. After all, it is convenient for a child to have one so you can reach him at any time or he can phone you when an after-school activity lets out. However, parents often worry about Internet access, excessive texting, bullying via text message, a child talking on the phone late at night and a myriad of other issues. Fortunately, today's phones and technology do afford parents some control over their children's cell phone habits.
Built-in Parental Controls
There are dozens upon dozens of cell phones available for purchase. Each features a different way to set controls and control availability varies from phone to phone. Three of the best parental-control friendly options are iPhone, Kajeet and Firefly Glo.
iPhones offer quite a few built-in controls that will help parents keep kids safe from online predators and unwanted callers. Restrictions for iOS are accessed via Settings/General/Restrictions. Under this panel, you can control:
- Which apps are allowed
- What content rating is preferred
- Whether your child from changing privacy settings, such as for location software
iPhones also will allow you to block a particular number from calling your child. If a classmate is calling and leaving nasty messages, for example, simply tap the blue circled 'i' next to the caller's identifier under Phone/Recents. Scroll to the bottom and choose "block caller". In addition, you can install numerous apps to add additional controls.
Kajeet cell phones are intended for younger kids and feature some pretty extensive parental controls. Some of the features include:
- Block numbers
- Set up time limits
- Limit Internet usage
- Use a GPS locator to find a child
- Monitor activity through the Kajeet website.
The phones are fairly inexpensive, so if your child breaks it, no big deal. The least expensive phones start at just $24.99 and some service plans are under $5.00 per month. Kajeet has a 4 out of 5 star rating on CNET.
Apps to Control Kids' Phones
No matter what built-in parental controls are on your child's phone, a variety of third party apps can provide additional monitoring and safety features.
My Mobile Watchdog
My Mobile Watchdog offers cell phone monitoring. You will receive a log of phone calls, text messages and what pictures were sent to and from the phone. You can also set it up so that you are notified if anything inappropriate is sent, so you can intervene immediately. You'll receive a daily report in your email box that lets you know about new contacts and other mobile phone activity. In addition, you can track your child's location to see if she is where she said she'll be or when she might be arriving at a particular location.
One of the best features of this software is the application blocking feature. You can block any application you choose so that it doesn't work on your child's phone, including:
- Online games
- Web browser
- Instant messaging apps
You can limit the times of day your child can use different features of the phone or you can limit quantities, such as number of texts sent in a month.
Reviews: Top 10 Reviews rated this software with 8.65 out of 10 points.
Cost: You can try the app for free for seven days. If you like it, you pay just $4.95 per month to keep the service going.
Phone Sheriff is an app that works with mobile phones and tablets. The software has features that parents will find useful in making sure children are safe while using mobile devices.
Phone Sheriff's features include:
- Block phone numbers from calling or texting
- Create time restrictions
- Block specific apps
- Get activity alerts
- Monitor what your child is texting
- Get real time location tracking and trace GPS locations (If you have a Verizon service plan, this app will not function with Verizon's GPS services, so that part will not work.)
- (If you have a Verizon service plan, this app will not function with Verizon's GPS services, so that part will not work.)
- Lock the phone for a set amount of time
You can also get an immediate call history and a panic alert in case of emergency. The software also features an anti-abduction mode. You can trace GPS locations and even command the phone to take a "stealth photo" and record audio.
Reviews: On Softpedia, Phone Sheriff received a rating of four out of five stars overall. Some of the comments indicate that the software is "user-friendly".
Cost: Phone Sheriff costs $49.00 for a six month subscription or $89.00 for a one year subscription. If your child has an Apple product and you don't want to deal with a Jailbreak, purchase Teen Shield for approximately $40 for three-month access and you can still monitor your child's activity without having to break into an iPhone or iPad.
Funamo offers parental control for Android devices. In addition to providing parental controls, the software also connects an entire family via mobile devices.
Some of the features of Funamo include:
- Block inappropriate content
- Log device activity
- Set time limits for specific apps
- Send the device into "silence" during school hours
The software allows you to monitor every call and text message your child sends or receives. Their mobile web filters block pornography and other adult content.
Reviews: On Google Play, users gave this software an average of 3.3 out of 5 stars, rating it good. Reasons for some of the lower reviews include some apps missing from the selections and the reasons for high reviews included the many features and low price.
Cost: There is a one-time $19.99 fee. There are no subscriptions or ongoing fees to content with.
All of the major providers offer some type of parental controls via their service platform. For example, you can limit text messaging, block picture downloads, set up time limits or us GPS tracking.
AT&T Smart Controls
In a Consumer Search review about parental controls, the New York Times-owned company lists AT&T as the most comprehensive program for parental controls. Those with AT&T cell phone service may find Smart Controls a viable option to limit certain aspects of cell phone usage. For example, you can block up to 30 different numbers from calling the phone. Have a particular girl at school who keeps calling and bullying your daughter? Block her number and she'll no longer be able to phone, but will get a recorded message instead.
Additional features include:
- Time of day limits
- Monthly texting limits
- Block or limit Internet access
- Purchase limits for mobile products
- If the child nears a limit on number of ringtones that can be purchased, for example, he will receive a warning text from AT&T so he knows he is nearing his limit.
Verizon also offers several different programs that help parents control their children's wireless phone usage. Family Safeguards and Controls is the bedrock of Verizon's parental control program, and includes a number of options. In a Digital Trends review, Mike Flacy praises one of Verizon's services - FamilyBase - for the ability to give parents the information they need to make informed decisions about what to block and what to allow.
Available controls allows parents to:
- Locate your child
- View activity logs
- Control usage times
- Block numbers
- Place age restrictions on the phone for certain content
- Block web usage
- Location trackers
- Spam blockers
Some services are free while others are fee-based.
- Content filters, call and message blocking, Internet spam blocking, service blocks and usage alerts are free.
- The locator service runs $9.99 per month per device.
- FamilyBase, which helps you control who your kids communicate with, runs $5.00 per month per service account.
Built-in options include:
- Block callers (though you will have to log into your MySprint account to block particular callers one at a time)
- Control outgoing calls (though you will need to program the phone to do this)
- Camera controls (via programming the phone or installing an app)
Family Locator details:
- Allows parents to monitor children's whereabouts
- Costs $5 per month for up to four different phones.
- Phones will only work with Sprint's Family Locator service if they have built-in GPS, so be aware of this when purchasing a cell phone for your child.
- Reviews on Google Play seem to indicate that the experience varies by user and the type of phone. Those with Androids rated the app higher than those with iPhones.
T-Mobile also offers a few built-in features and fee-based services for families to make cell phone use safer for kids.
- Free message blocking (so parents can block messaging and pictures from specific numbers)
- Web Guard (free program to help parents filter the content your child can view; will even disable searches)
- If you are worried about how much your child is texting, you can subscribe to Family Allowances for $4.99 per month and limit each of these. In addition, you can set up certain hours that your child can and can't use his phone.
- FamilyWhere will allow you to track your child via GPS and even view a history of where your child has been over the last seven days. The cost for FamilyWhere is $9.99 per month but that covers every phone that is in your family plan.
- T-Mobile's Drive Smart locks the ability to text while your teen is driving. It runs just $4.99 a month for up to ten lines.
Make Your Own Decision
When it's time to buy your child a cell phone, ask the sales staff about which phones and plan features will help you best protect your child, as technology changes rapidly. However, ultimately, the program or combination of options that works best for your family will be the one you find easy to use and that keeps your child from dangerous or uncomfortable situations. Cell phones can be a positive way to keep in touch with your child and mark a milestone that shows the child is growing into a young adult. However, as with most rites of passage, parents should proceed with caution and offer freedom with control over areas that might be dangerous.