Many parents are understandably reluctant to give their children fully featured cell phones, complete with texting, email, cameras, web access and video games. (For buying advice, read our article Cell Phones for Kids: Important Buying Advice.) News reports of teens sending explicit text or photo messages can give grownups nightmares, as can outrageous bills for hours-long calls to friends or excessive downloading of ringtones and games.
Cell phone carriers have addressed this problem by giving parents tools to control what their kids can and can't do with their cell phones, or at least monitor who they're talking or texting with. For anywhere from $2 to $10 per month parents can restrict text messages, block incoming phone numbers or limit calls to specific geographical locations, among other options.
AT&T offers some of the most comprehensive blocking options. Their Smart Controls program (*Est. $5 per month) allows parents to restrict text messages, ringtone downloads and other activities. Parents can also limit when the phone can be used and who can be called or texted. T-Mobile's Family Allowances (*Est. $2 per month) and Verizon's parental controls (*Est. $5 per month) offer similar features. Sprint's Wireless Web Access (free) lets parents set up restrictions online.
My Mobile Watchdog (*Est. $10 per month) is a downloadable parental-control application that has attracted some attention. My Mobile Watchdog monitors incoming and outgoing calls, emails, texts and photo messages, notifying parents if contact is made with an unapproved caller (all callers are considered unapproved until their status is changed by parents via the My Mobile Watchdog website). Reviewers have been fairly positive about My Mobile Watchdog, especially now that it is compatible with a wide variety of devices - from Android to BlackBerry to Windows Mobile.
In addition to blocking their children's ability to kill time with text messages and pictures, parents can even monitor their whereabouts. Verizon's Family Locator service (*Est. $10 per month) lets parents monitor the location of their child's phone from a computer or cell phone. For the same price, Sprint's Family Locator (*Est. $5 per month to track up to four phones) provides similar reports
When all is said and done, these types of applications will only get you so far, especially if your kids are tech-savvy. The bottom line: educate yourself, talk to your kids and use parental controls as backup, not as the sole source of discipline.