New Cell Service Blocks Kids' Calls, Texts, Downloads

New plan allows parents to control calls, text messages, talk time & downloads.

January 8, 2009, 1:12 AM

Sept. 5, 2007 — -- 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.

"It didn't work out too well," said Kiersten, now 15. "I always wanted it when she wanted it, so we wound up getting our own."

Unless their friends share the same service provider, they are restricted to texting and calling their parents. Kiersten accuses her sister of constant texting, but isn't so sure her parents should block Olivia's chatter.

"I guess it honestly depends on if you have screwed up before or gone over your text minutes," she said. "But why block or limit if you haven't done anything wrong?"

Now, their 9-year-old sister Emily wants a piece of the phone action.

"She's asking, but she's not getting one," said Hendricksen. "I would say, maybe when she's 12."

Kiersten is betting her parents bend that rule. "She'll get one before that because she's younger," said her older sister. "Their guard is down more."

"Sometimes, I get mad when I want a cell phone," said feisty Emily. After all, she has a friend who got one in the first grade.

What Emily failed to mention, adds her father, is that the friend's parents bought her a phone after they inadvertently left the child at home alone for an entire day. "Mommy thought she was with Daddy, and Daddy thought she was with Mummy," he said.

Would Emily mind if her parents blocked her calls?

"I guess if it was school, that's sort of OK, because school is where you have to learn and pay attention," she said. "But not when you are are in your own house!"

Despite media reports that today's parents micromanage every aspect of their children's lives, many say that parents have a more laissez-faire attitude about discipline and control.

Brittany Sjaastad, 14, is one of the friends whom Olivia texts at night. "During the summer, it's pretty much in my hand all the time, and I am texting almost the whole entire day," she said. "My mom buys me plans to use all the time. I have no idea what she pays for phone calls."

In Beth Blecherman's school district in Menlo Park, Calif., an estimated 90 percent of all children had cell phones by the sixth grade, according to a study she did for the parent teacher organization.

Blecherman, who runs her own blog -- -- uses an AT&T Blackberry and said she would eagerly buy the new service for her children.

"Those are the things that are most important to me," she said. "That they receive calls from friends I approve of and not make calls to anyone who is not on the list and controlling downloads. If I could do that, I would feel completely comfortable."

"The question is kind of why I don't trust my kids enough, but it's a scary place out there," she said. "The only way I can help my child navigate through all the tough decisions and situations is if I know who their friends are and who they are talking to. They're not quite mature enough. We need to protect our children, but have functionality available to them."

Jill Asher, a 38-year-old mother and founder of the Silicon Valley Moms Blog, is adamant that her two little girls won't have cell phones — at least, not for now.

"I know someone who bought iPhones for her fifth- and sixth-graders," said Asher, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif. "I think it's totally outrageous."

"No sixth-grader of mine would walk around with a $500 to $600 phone," she said. "It is absolutely the wrong message, and totally unnecessary for that age. What are they going to expect when they are teenagers?"

Still, it's an uphill battle, living in the heart of tech country. It was Asher's 5- and 7-year-olds who taught her to use the camera on her own cell phone.

"I'm technically challenged," Asher said. "But, I have no intention now of letting them use the phone. But, we'll see how it goes as school progresses."

Devra Renner, of Centerville, Va., co-author of "Mommy Guilt," said cell phone restrictions should depend on the child, and good communication goes a long way to controlling your child's behavior.

Her 11-year-old only uses the phone to check in with his parents or for use in an emergency. Believing "human contact is important," she won't allow him to text message.

But, she does not trust her 7-year-old with a cell phone.

"You tell my older son these things are expensive, and he gets it," said Renner. "The other one would be texting everyone he knows in two seconds. Kids have different personalities, and you adjust to each child."

Whether a parent chooses to control cell phone use or not, is a personal choice. "You decide what works best for your family," Renner said.

"Parents feel all kinds of pressures," she added. "Guilt is normal. Debilitating guilt is not. Parenting is to be enjoyed, and we are all probably doing a better job than we give ourselves credit for."

And as for the flagrant use of cell phones, Renner said, "I did it as a kid, too — whatever the new thing is, an Atari, or whatever is the thing at the time. … Kids always want to see what the limits are and how far they can push."

When pressed for why she really wants a cell phone, 9-year-old Emily Hendricksen paused — "Well, I don't know," she said. "They look cool."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events