Dawn Clark, a sensible Leesburg, Va., mother, was startled recently when the one-hit wonder "Party Like a Rock Star" blasted from her cell phone. She certainly hadn't downloaded that ring tone.
Her 11-year-old son did, when he borrowed her phone to keep in touch.
"He had no idea what he had done," said Clark. "But, he had bought it and set it as my ring tone."
Now, Clark can buy a new service from AT&T — Smart Limits for Wireless — that gives parents wide-ranging control over the cell phones used by their children.
The controls can limit when a wireless phone makes and receives calls, restrict text messages and talk time, and set allowances for ring tones and other downloads.
For $4.99 a month, parents can log onto a Web site and allow only a parent's number, or block the number of friends who might be a bad influence, or curtail calls during homework time or school.
"Parents were looking for ways to set and manage limits without taking the phone away," said AT&T spokesman Jeannie Hornung. "It prevents surprises."
Kimberly Brown bought the new service and reversed the surprise on her 11- and 17-year-old boys with the blocker last night.
She had become exasperated with phone bills as high as $500, and texting that went on until 3 a.m. One son had even gone so far as to download a $20 a month "joke of the day" service.
The Atlanta mother instituted a "bedtime restriction" — stopping all incoming and outgoing calls between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
The service allows her to designate 15 people who can reach her children in case of an emergency, a list that includes their parents, grandparents and a few family friends.
"They don't know yet, and I don't know if I'll tell them," said Brown the day before her sly purchase. "They're my children, and I can say what's good or not good for them. That's my role as a parent."
Rising numbers of cell-phone-using teens have become a key source of growth for the wireless industry, and the latest estimates show that, by the end of the year, 84 percent of the U.S. population will be carrying mobile phones, according to SNL Kagan, a communications research firm.
Cell phones have invaded just about every corner of family life since they arrived in the palms of young children sometime in the 1990s.
Now, every self-respecting junior high schooler carries a sleek device, and even children as young as kindergarten age pressure their parents to buy them their own line.
The Hendricksens of Allentown, N.J., have been fighting the good battle ever since Kiersten and Olivia got their first cell phones in middle school.
"At first, my parents told me I didn't need one, but one day, my Dad took me to the food store and we ended up going to Verizon," said Olivia, now 14. "But, he said it was for safety reasons."
Since then, Olivia uses the phone primarily for texting, but she uses the vibration mode, so her parents can't hear it ring when she is in bed at night.
"Olivia is in her room at 11 at night, talking to friends," said dad Bruce Hendricksen. "The phone in the house never rings at all, anymore, and if there is a problem with her friends, we never know.
"We don't want to control their lives, but with cell phones, you lose something," he said. "She's on the phone constantly. It's challenging."
Olivia was 12 when her father bought her first cell phone — she shared it with her 13-year-old sister.