Katherine Boehret

Keeping Tabs on Kids’ Phones

When I was a teenager, my parents monitored my use of our house phone in ways that I considered annoying. I griped about not having a phone in my room and needing to hang up by a certain time each night. Getting my own line was out of the question. And much to my teenage chagrin, Mom and Dad were fond of chatting with my friends if they answered the phone before me.

Today, things are different. Many parents buy cellphones for their preteen children to keep in touch and as a safety measure. Teens have the luxury of their own cellphones that some parents won’t even know how to use.

But cellphones introduce a host of problems. Parents have no way of knowing with whom their children are talking or text messaging, nor do they know what is being said in these calls or in text messages typed in abbreviated slang. Digital photos and videos can be captured and sent from one phone to another in seconds, and smart phones with Web-browsing capabilities bring the Internet and instant messaging to kids wherever they are.

Mobile alerts, which can be received via email or text message, are useful for on-the-go parents.

This week, I tested a new software application called Radar that can be wirelessly downloaded onto a kid’s cellphone to digitally monitor the phone’s activities, including incoming or outgoing calls, emails and text and photo messages. Alerts are sent notifying parents of any contact with unapproved people.

Radar comes from eAgency Inc., Newport Beach, Calif., and is geared toward 8- to 14-year-olds. Though Radar doesn’t yet work on the most basic cellphones and has limitations, including not notifying parents when a child uses a phone for Web browsing or instant messaging, eAgency says these improvements and others are in the works for future versions. Overall, Radar performed well and was user-friendly enough for tech-shy parents.

The company charges a monthly fee of $10 for one user or $15 for a family, which enables monitoring of up to five accounts. There’s no limit to the number of people who are alerted to a phone’s activities, as they don’t need to download Radar. Instead, notifications are sent via text message and/or email to a parent’s mobile device; they’re also collected on a Web site where all activities are listed together.

EAgency is careful to note that its software application isn’t spyware, lurking in the background of the device without making itself known. In fact, whenever the child’s phone is turned on, a message says it’s being monitored by Radar. This message also appears on the phone once daily.

For now, Radar only works on all BlackBerrys regardless of carrier, and eAgency has a deal on its www.MyMobileWatchdog.com site that can get BlackBerry Pearls free of charge for certain customers. But many parents’ kids already have basic cellphones or don’t want their kid to have a BlackBerry. In roughly a month, Radar will work with devices that run Microsoft’s Windows Mobile software, though this doesn’t help much, as these devices function more like BlackBerrys. Radar will be available for regular cellphones, like Motorola’s Razr, by mid-September.

I tested the product using a BlackBerry Pearl as the kid’s device and an LG Chocolate phone as the parent’s device that would get alerts of phone activity. To get Radar running on the Pearl, I sent a text message with a download link in it from the company Web site, and loaded the application onto the BlackBerry in a few seconds.

I used the Pearl as anyone might, adding names, numbers and emails of new friends and contacts that I wanted stored in my BlackBerry. I also used it to make and receive calls, and to send and receive emails and text messages. Every time any of these activities took place with an unapproved person, the parent phone was notified within seconds, as was my account on Radar’s Web site and the email addresses that I set up with my account.

Unknown people are automatically considered unapproved until you go onto the Radar Web site to change their status in your account. I accessed this account on MyMobileWatchdog.com with a username and password. EAgency asks that you call the number on its Web site the first time you set up a Radar account so that it can walk you through how the software application works with your child’s phone.

The account home page on Radar’s Web site is a clean space, organized using tabs at the top and six shortcuts in the center of the screen, including “Alerts,” which shows a comprehensive list of all the alerts.

Alert notifications are simple, stating who did what, when it was done, and what the message or call involved, such as the content of a text message or the documented length of a phone conversation. Radar won’t record phone conversations. Mobile alerts can be received via email (on a smart phone) or text message (on a regular cellphone or smart phone).

After using Radar for a few days, I realized some text message alerts were truncated due to the SMS standard that limits messages to 160 characters. So though your child might send a message with 100 characters in it, your alert might contain only 90 of those because characters are used up by notifications such as, “Katie has received an unauthorized text message from…”

Radar’s Web site offers a text message abbreviation dictionary so you can decipher what your kid is actually saying when he or she types “JTLYK” (just to let you know).

During testing my BlackBerry Pearl received an MMS, or Multimedia Message Service, containing a digital photo. My parent phone and email account were notified through a message with a link to this photo.

Alerts are also generated whenever a child adds a new contact to his or her device. A list of the most recent contacts added to the child’s device conveniently appears on the Radar account home page. By marking someone as “Approved,” a parent agrees not to be notified of contact between that person and the child. People marked as “Unapproved” and “Suspicious” will generate alert notifications.

Reports documenting your child’s interaction with specific people over certain time periods via text, email or voice calls can be generated at the click of a button. These reports can be printed out or digitally exported from Radar’s site using Internet Explorer as your browser.

For $10 or $15 monthly, Radar might be worth a try, especially with very young kids. But until Radar is available for the phones most popular with kids, parents will have to continue with their tried and true methods of keeping track of their kids’ phone use.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

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