Posted: Rebecca Graham|June 26th, 2019

Cell Phone Providers

What You Need to Know about Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T's Parental Controls

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Written by Rebecca Graham
Rebecca Graham is BestCompany's expert on home loans and cell phones, empowering readers to make the best financial decisions based on data and research. Rebecca unplugs from consumer culture on occasion to hike with her family.




There’s no shortage of headlines exposing smartphones as a platform for predator grooming, bullying, and self-loathing among teens and tweens. For any child with a smartphone, these dangers are constantly within arms reach — and it’s terrifying.

According to a recent poll administered by Branded Research for Best Company, 9 percent of U.S. consumers say that it’s fine to give a phone to kids age 10 and younger. Most consumers (78 percent) say that children and teens should be given a cell phone between the ages of 11-16.

But even though they think youth should have phones, 86 percent of consumers are concerned about young people’s cell phone use — and rightfully so. The top concern is safety from predators, followed by social concerns, explicit material, academic concerns, and physical health.

What is your biggest concern with child/teen cell phone use?

Safety from predators 33%

Social concerns 26%

Explicit material 14%

Academic concerns 7%

Physical health 6%

No concerns 14%

It’s clear that many parents are caught between a rock and a hard place. Our culture depends so much upon mobile devices that it is expected that teens have one, yet there are very real dangers.

So you’re probably asking yourself:  How can I utilize the benefits of cell phone access while maintaining my child’s safety and overall well-being?

We’re here to help you discover how to do just that.

The solution: parent education + carrier controls

Using the “concerns” categories of the above-mentioned survey as a guide, we’ll share recommendations for healthy child phone use, provided by experts in technology, psychology, and education.

We also researched the parental control capabilities and the accompanying apps of our highest-ranked cell phone providers — Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T — to determine which carrier provides the best options for safe teen phone use.

The parent control capabilities reviewed are based on the free features offered by each carrier combined with its respective paid companion app:

  • T-Mobile Family Allowances (free) and FamilyMode app ($10/month)
  • AT&T Smart Limits (free) and Secure Family app ($7.99/month) 
  • Verizon Family Controls (free) and Smart Family app ($4.99/month without location and alerts, $9.99/month for premium)

The importance of healthy modeling 

Of course, creating a digitally safe home involves more than purchasing an app and running through a checklist of to-dos. So before deciding how you want to approach each category of teen phone safety, take an inventory of your own phone use — and what changes you can make to improve your relationship with your children through trust and quality time.

Digital literacy advocate and author Diana Graber introduces this foundational concept well: “Obey your own house rules, and remember your children are watching.” When kids, whether preschoolers or teenagers, see parents on their own devices constantly, what message does that send about what’s normal for screen use? What message does it send about priorities?

Public speaker and Instagram crusader Collin Kartchner is working to #SavetheKids and #SavetheParents through education and discussion about the need for time away from screens. He says that smartphones can disconnect parents from their kids, distracting them from who is truly important.

Kartchner’s catchphrase?

"Showing your kids you love them is 2% effort and 98% putting down your phone."
Click to tweet

Safety from predators

It’s no surprise that the number one concern with teen cell phone use is safety from predators. The anonymity of the internet combined with children’s access to smartphones creates alarmingly ample opportunities for predators to manipulate teens.

But there are steps you can take to minimize the risk of danger.

Monitor contacts and messages

Clinical psychologist and sexual violence prevention author Elizabeth Jeglic advises parents to set and enforce clear boundaries for phone use from the very beginning. But if you aren’t currently enforcing clear boundaries, don’t despair — it’s better late than never.

In order to expect limits to be effective, clear communication and consistency are key.

“Phones should not be allowed in rooms at night,” Jeglic says. “Not only do they interfere with sleep, but research also shows that the majority of teens who are talking to strangers online or via text do so after their parents go to sleep.”

Jeglic also recommends parents have teens sign a usage contract, such as this one, that gives parents the right to their phone password to discourage inappropriate communications. “Let your children know that you need their password to access the phone and you have the right to check what they are doing on their phone, including what they are texting and to whom.”

Justin Lavelle, online background check expert and CCO of BeenVerified, also emphasizes the importance of complete parent access to a child’s phone. “Be clear with them about the frequency with which you plan to check their phone,” he explains.

Then, be sure to follow through and check it — frequently. Lavelle advises that parents look at their child’s contact list and consider calling unfamiliar contacts to ensure this is someone you want your child communicating with. Lavelle points out that there are phone carriers that will give you the option to set up the phone where it only functions with the contact numbers you’ve approved.

Restrict apps

It’s a horrifying reality that children and teens are being exploited via popular apps that have the ability to hide content, stream live video, exchange photos and videos, and even simply send and receive messages with strangers. And many apps, like Snapchat, can’t be monitored by parental control apps or devices. Limiting access to certain apps is key.

Lavelle explains that both Apple and Android phones can be set up to restrict kids’ ability to download any new apps or to give kids access only to apps that have been approved by you.

Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T all offer some degree of app blocking, app filtering, phone number management, and location services.

Carrier comparison: Safety from predators

Verizon

Block calls and texts from up to 20 phone numbers

Service blocks control new apps and services on devices — app downloads require permission

Can limit apps based on age or manually disallow apps

Location services, including alerts with 7-day location history

Block up to 15 email addresses, vtext IDs, and/or Internet domains

T-Mobile

Block calls and texts from up to 10 phone numbers

Use a current allowance to specify the amount of money allowed to spend on app downloads

Can limit apps based on age or manually disallow apps

Location services, including alerts with 7-day location history

AT&T

Block calls and texts from up to 30 phone numbers

Block app purchases from the Apple store or Google Play

Can limit apps based on age or manually disallow apps

Location services, including alerts with 7-day location history

 

Social concerns

Social concerns are also a big concern with teen phone use and encompass bullying, isolation, social anxiety, negative body image, and problems with friends and family.

Interestingly, the survey results show that younger consumers are more likely than older consumers to cite social concerns as their biggest issue with child/teen cell phone use. It’s possible that younger consumers’ concerns reflect negative experiences they’ve personally had growing up with cell phones.

Fortunately, parents can insulate their kids from these effects to some degree by setting appropriate age boundaries and time limits.

Wait until an appropriate age

Digital safety educator Collette Bowers Zinn suggests that every family should make the decision regarding appropriate age for a mobile device in part based on finances, the child’s maturity, and social and environmental circumstances. But safety should be paramount — not peer pressure.

“Parents shouldn’t feel pressured if their children have school friends who already have smart devices,” cautions Zinn. “There are many factors to consider when deciding the appropriate age to give a child a smartphone, but there is overwhelming evidence that eighth grade is the ideal age. Parents can visit waituntil8th.org for more information on the research behind this theory.”

Waiting to grant smartphone access gives your child the opportunity to develop healthy social skills and relationships. Diana Graber encourages parents to keep these benefits in mind as they make decisions about their child’s screen time.

In her book Raising Humans in a Digital World, Graber says, “Be mindful of what young children need most — face-to-face interaction with loving human beings. This is how children gain social skills, emotional self-control, creativity, resilience, and most of all, the ability to get along with other people and to see things from other perspectives.”

Set screen time limits

All three of the major carriers we’ve compared offer the ability to pause and resume internet access, set device time limits, and limit access to texts, calls, and data. The experts emphasize the importance of setting those time limits for optimal social health.

When time with screens is limited, children can use their time for other pursuits like spending time in nature, learning new skills, playing sports, doing service around the community, practicing other hobbies, and developing friendships in person.

Justin Lavelle suggests parents enforce (and follow themselves!) a no cell phone policy during important family times like family meals and outings. “Family time should be designed to have family members interacting in a meaningful way,” he explains.

“If your child is endlessly texting at the dinner table and you’re consistently being interrupted by the sound of a message entering their inbox, it’s a recipe for a hostile situation.” You can avoid these situations by setting clear boundaries ahead of time so that everyone knows what to expect.

Dr. Gilbert Chalepas, clinical and family psychologist, echoes this sentiment about family meals in particular. “The whole point of family meals is to enjoy the meal you are sharing as well as each other’s company.”

Regarding family activities and outings, Chalepas says teens should either leave the phone at home or in the car. And if an unforeseen “teen emergency” arises? “Give them five minutes to finish up and put it away.”

Carrier comparison: Social protections

Verizon

Instantly pause and resume mobile internet access over Wi-Fi

Pause and resume access to data

Set regular device time limits on a customizable schedule

Limit access to texts and calls

T-Mobile

Instantly pause and resume mobile internet access over Wi-Fi

Pause and resume access to data

Set regular device time limits only through preset time slot options

Limit access to texts and calls

Set time limits on specific apps and platforms

AT&T

Instantly pause and resume mobile internet access over Wi-Fi

Pause and resume access to data

Set regular device time limits on a customizable schedule

Limit access to texts and calls


 

Explicit material

It’s not a matter of if your child will view explicit content, but when. You can’t completely shelter your child from ever encountering media that is pornographic, violent, or self-harming. But content filters and restrictions should be utilized to minimize the exposure.

Utilize content filters

Diana Graber recommends three general principles to follow when it comes to monitoring on-screen content:

  • Watch and play the video games your children are playing
  • Keep electronic media in public places
  • Talk to the parents of your children’s friends about what your children do at their homes

Beyond setting app restrictions, parents should consider blocking certain websites, setting time restrictions on internet browsing access, and setting up online filters based on age through their phone carrier.

Photo/texting restrictions

Sending sexually explicit text messages and images, or sexts, is more common than parents might think. According to a study published in 2018, about 15 percent of teens are sending sexts and 27 percent of teens are receiving sexts.
 
Elizabeth Jeglic says parents need to address this issue. “Talk to your kids about what types of pictures it is okay to take and send via text. Even forwarding a naked picture of another minor can be considered transmission of child pornography.”
 
Gilbert Chalepas recommends parents “restrict camera usage and access or download an app to do it for you. Things can quickly get out of hand by taking video in locker rooms, for example, so monitor camera use closely. You don’t want your kids being labeled as a sex offender.” 

Carrier comparison: Blocking explicit material

Verizon

Block apps and filter online content based on age (children 7+, teens 13+, young adults 17+) and category (violence, drugs, pornography)

Block music and video content by age

Cannot monitor content of text messages

T-Mobile

Block apps and filter online content based on set filter levels of high, medium, & low

View website history



Cannot monitor content of text messages

AT&T

Block apps and filter online content based on age

Block picture and video messages except for iMessages like WhatsApp, FaceTime, Kik, Line, Viber


Cannot monitor content of text messages

Parent is notified when a child tries to access blocked app or web content

 


Academic concerns and physical health 

When left unchecked, cell phone usage can interfere with academic performance and can get in the way of adequate sleep. Screen time limits can be an important part of the solution to these concerns.

School restrictions

Author Rachel Macy Stafford has written about the benefits of screen time boundary setting on her blog Hands Free Mama. Her blog and book of the same title center around this concept:

"Let go of what doesn't matter, so you can grasp what DOES."
Click to tweet


After setting screen time limits as a family, Stafford explains that “we all began to make better choices in respect to how we were using our time, focus, and energy. Not only did my children's academic performance improve, but there was more connection, conversation, laughter, and togetherness than before.”

Some teens are using phones at school to cheat, gossip, or bully a classmate. But even if your teen isn’t involved in those particular behaviors, it can still be beneficial to have them leave the phone at home.

“Using their cell phones in school is a learning distraction,” explains Justin Lavelle. “The easiest solution is to have your child hand over their cell phone in the morning before school.”

For parents that would like their children to have their cell phones on them so that they can get in touch after school, enforce a limited number of texts and/or phone calls after school or remind them that you will be checking their phone records. Then, as with all of these boundaries — make sure to follow through!

Gilbert Chalepas points out that even though some schools have rules regarding phones, kids can come up with inventive ways to get around them, so support the school by enforcing the rules at home. Chalepas notes that “you may also consider banning cell phone use during weekday mornings if your child has a hard time getting ready before school on time.”

Bedtime restrictions

There really aren’t any good reasons for teens to have a smartphone in their bedroom at night, so enforce a no cell phone policy. A child’s quality and quantity of sleep each night influences behavior and performance in school the next day. 

Chalepas suggests that a good way to enforce such a policy is “to have everyone’s cell phone charging at the same place in a designated spot, so no one can cheat, including the parents because they need rest too.”

Another consideration: use a basic or flip phone

As you weigh parental control options between cell phone carriers, know that you’re not at the mercy of the specific control options available. Ultimately, you are in control of the type of phone you get for your kids. 
 
According to the Branded Research poll referenced in this article, a slight majority — 55 percent — say that teens should be given a smartphone rather than a basic or flip phone. Younger consumers are more likely than older consumers to favor smartphones for children and teens. But the 45 percent who favor basic phones might be on to a viable solution to many of the concerns regarding teen phone use.
 
Switching to basic phones or adding additional basic phones to use occasionally can be a hassle and is not necessarily cost-effective if some phone lines on the plan still require data. However, it’s worth looking into. All three of the top carriers offer talk and text only plans and a limited inventory of basic phone models. 

Carrier comparison: Flip phone plan options

Verizon

Talk and text + 500 MB data for downloading ringtones: $30/month

T-Mobile

Talk and Text: $20/month (taxes and fees included)

Unlimited Talk & Text cannot be added to an existing T-Mobile One account with more than one voice line

AT&T

Talk and text: $30/month or $25 with AutoPay

You can buy 100 MB high-speed data package for 30 days for $5 extra


 

Which carrier’s controls are best?

The parental controls for all three carriers give parents these essential capabilities:

  • Instantly turn off Wi-Fi access
  • Instantly turn off data access
  • Limit apps available for download
  • Limit time spent on device
  • Limit call minutes and number of text messages
  • Locate family members’ locations and location history (for 7 days)

There are limitations that apply across the board:

  • The app needs to be downloaded on your child’s phone for full functionality
  • The content of account members’ text messages is inaccessible through any of these carriers
  • The free versions have limited features
  • The free versions work only during the time spent roaming in the carrier’s network

What sets Verizon Smart Family apart

Verizon Smart Family allows you to block age-inappropriate  music and video content in addition to content on apps and websites. It also comes with internet spam and phishing protection, including the ability to block up to 15 email addresses, vtext IDs, and/or internet domains.

However, the Verizon parental controls do not work on tablets and you won’t be notified if your child attempts to access blocked content.

What sets T-Mobile FamilyMode apart

T-Mobile FamilyMode allows parents to reward kids with bonus screen time such as extending a time limit or disabling an “off” time. You can set time limits on specific apps and platforms in addition to overall device time limits.

Plus, FamilyMode can actually manage non-mobile devices connected to your home Wi-Fi, like gaming consoles, laptops, and Smart TVs. There is an upfront fee of $20 for the FamilyMode Home Base.

However, the parent’s version of the FamilyMode app can be accessed via Android devices only. If you have an Apple device, you must access the parental controls via My T-Mobile Online.

What sets AT&T Secure Family apart

AT&T Secure Family has the unique ability to block picture and video text messages on certain accounts. It gives a second parent admin access, works with tablet devices, and parents are notified when a child tries to access blocked app or web content.

However, the app is not yet compatible with pre-paid devices and services.

Regardless of the carrier you choose, supplemental apps and measures may be necessary. Collette Bowers Zinn counsels parents to put the time and energy into researching and implementing parental controls on the phone itself, such as Apple Parental Controls Screen Time settings, app allowances, and content and privacy restrictions. As for third-party apps, Zinn recommends Net Nanny, Secure Teen, and Teen Safe.

As a parent, you can’t control everything. But you can control your own behavior with phones, the phone you buy your child, the limits you set, and the consequences you enforce.

And someday, hopefully your kids will thank you for letting them be just that — kids.


 

Learn More About The Top Cell Phone Providers Companies

company logo
#1 Verizon chevron_right
8.4 Overall Score
4
starstarstarstarstar_border
(910)
company logo
#2 T-Mobile chevron_right
7.2 Overall Score
3.5
starstarstarstar_halfstar_border
(601)
company logo
#3 AT&T chevron_right
6.8 Overall Score
3.6
starstarstarstar_halfstar_border
(514)

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