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.
First Phones for Kids: What Parents Need to Know
The study also found that 90 percent of kids think it’s OK for parents to set rules concerning how they can and can’t use their phones, though only 66 percent of kids said their parents actually do this. Thirty-eight percent of parents (according to the kids) didn’t talk to their kids about being safe when using a mobile phone.
Additionally, 53 percent of kids said they’d ridden with someone who was texting and driving; 22 percent said they’d been bullied via text message; and 46 percent said “a friend” had received a message or photo that was more sexually explicit than their parents would approve of.
“How you treat your kids’ phones is part of our parental philosophy,” Roger Kay, principal analyst with EndPoint Technologies, told eWEEK. “You kind of give them a tour and say here’s the good stuff, here’s what to avoid, and then you let them do their thing.”
Kay chuckled and then added, “Or, that’s my take, anyway. My son told me and my wife recently, ‘You’re the most liberal parents I know.'”
For those parents unsure of how to talk with their kids about a first phone, Safely offers a five-point “mobile phone contract” that parents can download and have kids sign. One point is, “A phone is never more important than human beings.” Another is, “A phone is a privilege.” The finer print under that last one reads: “Prove yourself incapable of making good decisions with this phone, and you may have to resort to tin cans and string to get in touch with anyone.”
“Years ago, back before modern smartphones, I was looking at location-based services and thought I would totally use them when I gave my daughters phones,” said Ken Hyers, a senior analyst with Strategy Analytics.
“Oddly enough, now that my kids have the phones, I don’t use those services,” he continued. “My kids would realize it was on, and it would alienate them. My teenager would sooner throw her phone away than have me peering over her like that. [My] 12-year-old would accept that it’s the price to pay. But I know for certain that if I activated the GPS, the 14-year-old would seriously throw it away.”
Kay takes a different approach.
“The other day my daughter turned off the location services and I let her know ASAP: Turn it back on! It’s like an ankle bracelet. We need to know where you are!”
He added that his daughter could appreciate other benefits of the technology. Days earlier she’d lost the phone but was able to locate it on a map. Kay’s wife drove to the spot “and they found it at night, at the side of the road, under a pile of leaves,” he said.
“Between 16 and 18 they still need a fair amount of supervision, but at 18, you’re done,” he said, a little bitter-sweetly, before his tone turned wry. “I mean, their judgment is pretty poor until they’re about 24, but you can’t do much about that.”
Prepaid or Family Plan?
A month-to-month contract on a very inexpensive phone is in many cases the way to go.
“A lot of parents are starting out their kids on prepaid. There’s an allotment of minutes, and that’s it,” said Hyers.
But, he added, “More and more, kids are starting out with smartphones added on to postpaid family plans. It’s a nice excuse for the parent to upgrade. Mom gets the iPhone 5, and the kid gets the hand-me-down iPhone 4.”
First Phones for Kids: What Parents Need to Know
Hyers added, as an interesting side note, that there’s a trend of kids becoming disenchanted with the iPhone, because so many of them are using old ones. Hyers said he thought the data coming in couldn’t possibly be right, but he looked around and found other researchers finding the same thing.
“We found that the iPhone and iPad were being viewed as an older person’s device, and not as cool as they once were.”
Prepaid plans can start as low as $10 a month for limited service and often a parent can just buy the SIM—an ideal scenario for passing on a hand-me-down device where the SIM is accessible.
Among the many, many prepaid offers out there, Cricket Wireless, for example, offers contract-free talk-and-text only plans starting at $25 a month for 300 minutes.
For a teen who wants a data plan, but who maybe hasn’t yet proven himself responsible enough for an annual plan, Walmart’s Straight Talk Wireless offers a SIM-only (use your own phone), no contract, unlimited 30-day plan for $45 a month.
Consumer Reports, in a January report on prepaid services, said it found people in its surveys were happier with the service from Straight Talk than with prepaid plans from any of the major carriers.
For those who’d rather that the whole family stay on one plan, T-Mobile now separates the matter of buying a phone from buying phone service, which makes it very straightforward to consider pricing options.
On a T-Mobile Family Plan, three lines start at $90 per month—the first line is $50, the second $30 and the last $10. Each phone gets unlimited talk, text and Web, though after each hits 500MB of data, users are knocked down to a slower network. For four lines, under the same conditions, the monthly rate is $100.
On the Verizon Wireless network, Share Everything plans are tallied by adding the price of the amount of data you want to the price of the device you’d like to connect. Smartphones are $40 each per month, tablets are $10 and feature phones are $30. While 500MB is $40 per month, that’s a bucket of data that all three smartphones would be sipping from—versus 500MB each on T-Mobile.
A near equivalent would be to pay $60 for 2GB (plus unlimited talk and text) that the three phones could share, for a monthly total of $180.
AT&T’s Mobile Share plans work much like Verizon’s, except the cost per device goes down the more data you buy. If you buy 2GB for $50 a month, the price per smartphone is $45. Three smartphones and 2GB to split between them (with unlimited talk and text) would be $185.
The Sprint network is a little different. Up to 10 lines can be added to an Unlimited, My Way plan. For three lines, the first is $50, the second $40 and the third $30. (The next four to 10 lines are $20 each.) Subscribers then have the choice of $20 a month per line for 1GB of data or $30 per month per line for the phones to have unlimited high-speed data, plus unlimited talk and messaging. Three smartphones with 1GB each per month would be $180 a month total.
First Phones for Kids: What Parents Need to Know
In all cases, before proceeding, make sure to be clear about overage charges. Prepaid services will just stop working, but other plans may tack on considerable fees.
Practical Advice for Parents
“One thing I’ve learned is that kids lose things quite a bit,” said Strategy Analytics’ Hyers. “The location-based apps are a great way to track a lost phone. My older daughter recently lost a [Samsung Galaxy] Note II that I really regret giving her.”
Another good rule of thumb, he added, is go small. A phablet, or device with a 5-inch display, is not going to fare well in a backpack with books and a soccer ball.
“Buying a protective case is big. Phones get broken,” said Hyers.
Kay suggested saying all the seemingly obvious things that to kids aren’t always obvious.
“With our kids, we pretty much spelled out the dangers—people posing as people they’re not, people trying to get information, illicit activities. Tell them about everything. They’ll roll their eyes, but that’s fine. Once in a while, reiterate it all,” he advised.
“Parents are amazingly blind about their own kids. They don’t realize their kids can be [jerks]. And some of them really are—some kids are going to push the envelope and go looking for what’s bad. … You have to look squarely at all this.”
Hyers likewise advised taking nothing for granted.
“When you hand kids something new and neat, they’re going to use them in ways you wouldn’t think, and ways that are probably not terribly intelligent,” he offered kindly.
Lessons he said he’s learned along the way were to make his girls plug in their chargers in the kitchen each night, so they weren’t texting and watching videos in bed, and the importance of explaining how streaming video works. The latter lesson came after discovering on his phone bill that they were streaming videos on the bus each day, to and from school.
“I’m trying to think about it all in the same way I’m going to think about buying [the teenager] a car in the future,” said Hyers. “It’s a real learning process for me, but it’s training for what’s to come.”