First Phones for Kids: What Parents Need to Know

Pencils, erasers, smartphone? For those adding a first phone to their kid's school supplies, we offer some best practices (and hard-won advice).

At a party recently, an acquaintance, laughing nervously and holding firm to a wine glass, told me that her daughter is starting junior high in the fall and will have to walk home from school by herself, so earlier that day she'd bought her an iPhone.

My first thought was of the Pew Internet study that found teenage girls send and receive a median of 100 texts a day.

By the time she and her husband had set up the phone, the acquaintance added, her daughter already had two waiting messages.

First phones address a concern or two for parents, but bring with them countless others. The good news is, there's no shortage of tools, or advice, for easing both parties into this new world.

The Wireless Carriers Are Eager to Help

All the major carriers offer tools for families and parents. AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile partner with a company called Safely, which offers a suite of apps: Phone Controls, Family Locator, Safely Go and Drive Safe.

On the AT&T site, which is perhaps the most exhaustive, Mobile Safety tools are even broken down by age—8 to 11, 12 to 14, or 15 to 17.

For 8- to 11-year-olds, these include services like Smart Controls ($4.99 per month), which lets parents block calls or texts from particular numbers, set texting, data usage and in-app purchase limits, and specify times of day that the phone can't be used (though certain numbers, like those of parents, can be dialed regardless of the restrictions).

A popular tool across all the carrier sites is Safely's Family Locator, which enables a user (for $10 a month), to see where on a map each, or just one, member of her family is, using GPS.

While my acquaintance could interrupt her workday at 4 p.m. to check the map and make sure it showed that her daughter was at home, there's also the more efficient option of being alerted if, Monday through Friday, her daughter doesn't reach her home by 4 p.m.

On the AT&T network, the app is available on feature phones and smartphones running the Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry operating systems. On the iPhone, it can be used on the mobile Web through the Safari browser.

Verizon Wireless also offers a Family Locator app, for $10 per month, with the same notices and controls, though they only work on Android devices. iPhone owners can likewise go through the iPhone's browser. Though "if a family member has an iPhone," Verizon says in its FAQs, "it will provide less-detailed location results."

The SafelyGo app, free in the Google Play store, answers calls and texts while the phone owner is driving, while Drive Safe blocks outgoing calls and texts while the user is in motion.

The Phone Controls App lets a parent lock a kid's phone during certain hours, such as school hours, or when the kid should be sleeping. A video from the Sprint network explains how parents, from a dashboard, can also view the numbers of texts sent, phone numbers called and received, apps used and even block things like the ability for a kid to text to anyone but parents during school hours.

"Help your kids use their phones responsibly," the video says.

Jack Narcotta, an analyst with Technology Business Research, takes all these tools with a grain, or spoonful, of salt.

"Knowing where your kids are is a nice feature to have, but I'm still questioning the real value of these apps," Narcotta told eWEEK.

"Does it satisfy a helicopter parent's need to know where their kid is at every moment? I guess so," he continued. "But from my perspective, I don't see the value as being very serious, without it providing some other information—like if my son is driving a car too fast, or if he's in Boston and not New York. I think consumers haven't quite figured out what they're going to do with the information yet."

Parenting and First Phones

The age that most kids receive a first phone is 12, according to an AT&T-commissioned study that included 1,000 parents and 500 kids aged 8 to 17.