AT&T debuts cell-phone controls for parents

For generations, parents have yelled at their kids about running up the family phone bill, talking to their friends at all hours and sneaking calls to that low-life boyfriend.

Technology has just achieved what lectures never could.

Today, AT&T announces a Web site that allows parents to limit how many minutes teens can put on their cell phones, how many text messages they can send and receive, and how much can be spent on ringtones and games.

And other key topics of family dispute can be regulated:

Don't want your teen texting during school? Shut that down. Don't want him talking after 10 p.m.? Put the phone to bed. Don't want her calling or receiving calls from a certain someone? Block that number.

Not since Romeo and Juliet has teen communication been dealt such a tragic blow. Parents might see things otherwise.

"It's about time," says telecom analyst Jeff Kagan, a regular source for CNBC and Fortune magazine. "This addresses a runaway problem that every parent complains about. The whole market was set up to give parents whiplash. They're told a new line for a kid costs $10, until they get the bill."

About 79 percent of American teens 15-17 have cell phones, according to C&R Research Services in Chicago. The telecom industry has experimented with parental limits for teens' online and phone activity for years. Tiny Disney Mobile introduced this same system of limits last year, but it reaches very few customers, compared to market leader AT&T. Parental control of cell phones has never reached this far, analysts say. The next phone innovation to go mainstream and affect family life? GPS tracking that lets parents see online where their phone-toting kids are.

Are there privacy issues with parents managing so much of their kids' phone use?

"Not if they're paying the bills," Kagan says.

The service works on any AT&T phone bought within about the past two years and costs $5 per line per month. Teens can always call 911 -- even if they're past the set limits on minutes. Parents can set it up so teens can call or text them anytime.

AT&T has worked on the Smart Limits for Wireless for more than two years, and put the system through three rounds of testing with focus groups, says Carlton Hill, a vice president at AT&T wireless in Atlanta. "This allows the account holder, the person who pays the bill, to manage the account online."

Will other wireless companies follow suit?

"It's a great idea at a great price," says Kagan. "The other companies will do it if they begin to lose business."

"People will be talking about this," says Weston Henderek, a senior analyst specializing in telecommunications for the company Current Analysis in Virginia. "It will have a direct effect on families. There's no more negotiating or arguments. The parents win."

Controls parents can set and manage online:

• Limit the number of minutes that their children can use a wireless phone.

• Set limits on text and instant messages.

• Establish a dollar amount for download purchases, such as ringtones and games.

• Control the time of day and days of the week that the phone can be used.

• Block calls and text messages to/from numbers they don't approve.

• Filter access to Internet content that is inappropriate for children.

• Go online to change limits at any time.

For more information, visit www.att.com/smartlimitsforwireless