6 Ways Parents Can Save on Kids' Texting

I've been getting back-to-school story pitches since mid-June and I resisted --clinging ferociously to summer-- until today. Now two different groups have pinged me about the high financial and social cost of texting gone overboard and so I've gotten on the back to school bandwagon at last. As kids head back to campuses, the timing is right for you to get as tech-savvy as your kids, so you can keep them safe and keep your data bills down.

Every month the Better Business Bureau hears from shell shocked parents whose children have gone over their cell phone data limits. They do it by downloading music, playing games, doing online searches and, of course, texting their friends. And cell phone providers are not always sympathetic. In fact, the BBB received 38,420 complaints about cellular providers last year, more than about any other industry.

So the BBB did something smart and went straight to those same providers for advice on how parents can keep kids within their data limits and bills within their budgets. "You can save hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, on your next cell phone bill," said Rod Davis, of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, "by being proactive, and aware of the data activity in which your child engages."

Here are the programs each carrier shared with the BBB:

AT&T:

For AT&T customers there's a program called Smart Limits for Wireless for a monthly fee of $4.99. It does the following:

• Sets phone usage limits

• Sets a dollar limit for downloads

• Sends an alert when your child is near the download limit

• Once the limit is met, freezes downloads until the next billing cycle.

MetroPCS:

This carrier offers a free "Purchase Blocker" service that prevents mobile purchases and also a special type of account called MetroConnect. It does the following:

• Allows parents to set a monthly allowance for purchases.

• Stops further purchases once that allowance is used up.

Sprint:

Sprint offers something called Sprint Mobile Controls for Google Android phones. It does the following:

• Helps parents analyze their child's talk, text and app use habits.

• Locks the child's phone on demand.

• Allows parents to schedule locks during school, dinner, etc.

The service is free for the first 15 days per phone then $4.99 per phone per month thereafter.

U.S. Cellular:

With this company, parents can utilize the My Account tool to oversee their child's data usage for free. It does the following:

• Sends parents a text message when their data usage is close to the limit.

• Blocks data from being sent to a certain phone, if requested.

Verizon:

Verizon offers My Verizon Usage Controls for $4.99 a month. This service does the following:

• Allows parents to set monthly usage budgets for voice, messaging, data and content.

• Sends parents alerts when their children are close to those limits.

• Allows parents to restrict their kids' usage once the limit is reached.

Limiting how much time and money your children spend on their cell phones is just the beginning.

Identity Theft 911:

Monitoring how they spend that time is the next level. And you want to know about online time on the computer too. Identity Theft 911 has created a comprehensive, free tool to do that. It's called Social Scout. Identity Theft 911 set out to develop a dashboard that would incorporate both texts and Facebook, along with GPS tracking. This service does the following:

• Sends parents real-time alerts about who, what, when, where and how their children are interacting online, whether by computer or phone.

• Provides GPS tracking of where your child physically is, in addition to where they are online.

• Shows parents the text messages their kids are sending and receiving -including deleted ones.

• Shows where children are posting, tagging and checking in.

• Tracks their Facebook, Twitter and MySpace profiles.

• Translates teen text speech into plain language.

• Analyzes the child's interactions, showing who they correspond with the most and at what time of day.

As I write this column, I'm grateful that there are companies and organizations out there thinking about this stuff --and even more grateful that my daughter is only 5, so I don't have to think about it myself just yet!

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