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The Conundrum of Parent-Controlled Phones

Thu, 07/18/2013 - 5:07pm
Ben Munson

It used to be so easy to keep tabs on kids’ phone activity. Simply pick up a different phone and try not to breathe too heavily into the receiver. But the kids don’t want a landline anymore and as the functionality of their cell phones have become more impressive, monitoring their activity on them has gotten more complicated.

The general impetus seems to be, “My kid won’t stop bothering me until I get her a smartphone, but I can’t just hand them this connected device with unrestricted access to all its capabilities.” The newest answer to this problem came a week ago when Verizon introduced FamilyBase, a parental control/data analytics service.

For $5 per month, users are granted insights like when kids text and call, who they contact most and their app activity, as well as device controls like web access and download blocks and the ability to lock down a device. Verizon chose Location Labs’ mobile device management platform for the service.

FamilyBase is similar to other parental control options out there. AT&T’s Smart Controls offer the same sort of device management options and MVNOs like Kajeet and Zact present a wide range of customizations to give parents piece of mind when putting the mobile web in their kids’ hands.

Zact went a step further and gathered some data on the subject, proving there’s a niche for these services. According to Zact’s findings from interviewing more than 1,000 parent panelists, 78 percent of parents were concerned about online safety using mobile phones. Fully 64 percent are concerned about the amount of time their children spend texting, and 79 percent are concerned about being unsure who contacts their children.

The concerns are valid but services like FamilyBase seem perfect for just ratcheting up parental concern to paranoia levels. It may be more information than anyone needs to parent effectively. Not to mention it’s potentially very invasive no matter how well-intentioned. It would seem that just avoiding giving your kid a phone or handing them a dumb phone might be the best answer. But Location Labs CEO Tasso Roumeliotis has a concise and convincing argument against getting your kid a feature phone.

“Feature phones aren’t cool,” Roumeliotis said. “You get teased at school for having a feature phone.”

Fair enough, but what about your kid’s privacy?

Roumeliotis said the service is transparent enough—usage updates go to the kid and the parent—that a kid will at least know what privacies he or she doesn’t have. He assured us FamilyBase only provides certain details about calling and texting behavior and it purposefully does not grant access to the content of messages.

With issues of privacy alleviated and plans to hand your kid an ancient flip phone firmly squashed, services like FamilyBase start to look more reasonable. Now parents just have to figure out what to do with all this new information about their kids.

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