“The children are sucking up all the data.”
That was Jaqueline Smith’s challenge — and is the challenge of many parents who share a family cell phone plan with their teenage children.
For Smith, the culprits were two 17-year-olds and a 19-year-old. And the damage came close to $600 per month.
“We were being charged overages because invariably someone would end up going over their allotment,” says Smith, a consultant in Massachusetts, who has five smartphones and five tablets on her plan.
» MORE: Family plans save everyone money
Parental controls to the rescue
Parental control apps can help ensure your teen doesn’t hog all the data in your family cell phone plan.
Depending on the app, you can set data limits for each line on your plan. You can also designate restricted times to make sure your teens aren’t blowing up Snapchat — and burning through your data — when they should be studying or sleeping. Although we’re focusing on the data-saving aspect of parental controls, many of these apps have other features, such as the ability to view your teen’s location or see whom they text the most.
Parental control apps by carrier
Verizon, Sprint and AT&T offer parental control apps, for a fee. T-Mobile doesn’t offer an app to control data, but its customers don’t share data, even on family plans. There are also a handful of third-party apps that offer similar services, regardless of your wireless provider.
AT&T Smart Limits
Smart Limits lets you block cellular data on your teens’ phone and will send you a text alert when the line has used a specified amount of data. The app doesn’t automatically cut off the line’s data, though, so it’s up to you to shut off their data if they use their share. With cellular data blocked, they’ll be able to use apps like Spotify and Instagram only when they’re connected to Wi-Fi. You can also set time restrictions with Smart Limits, so Junior isn’t distracted by YouTube videos during math class. This feature can also block texts and outbound calls during a designated time. Smart Limits is available on iPhones and Android devices, as well as via a laptop or desktop.
Cost: $4.99 per month for one device, $9.99 per month for up to 10 devices.
Learn more about AT&T cell phone plans.
Sprint Account Controls and Mobile Controls
Sprint Account Controls isn’t an app, but it gets the job done if you want to block data on a specific line. And, best of all, it’s free for all Sprint customers. You just need to log in to your My Sprint account and click on the “My Preferences” tab to set up alerts and block data usage. You can also block text messages and phone calls, and even restrict certain apps. What you can’t do is designate specific times as no-phone zones. That feature is available only via Sprint’s Mobile Controls app, which also lets you lock your teen’s phone on demand. You and your teen need an Android device to use the Mobile Control app.
Cost: Free for Account Controls and $4.99 per month, per device, for Mobile Controls.
Learn more about Sprint cell phone plans.
Verizon FamilyBase is the only service from a major carrier that offers a set-it-and-forget-it option for data limits. You can set a limit for each device. Once your teen hits this limit, you can simply be alerted via text or you can stop data usage on that device altogether. Selecting “stop all data usage” is a crucial step, as Smith can confirm. Failure to check that box means your teens can keep using data, even if they hit the limit you set. When data usage is blocked, your teens can still connect to Wi-Fi to use their favorite apps.
FamilyBase also lets you set time restrictions, so your teens aren’t distracted during dinner or playing Pokémon Go when they’re at school. And it lets you view app usage or lock a specific phone, though those features work only on Android devices and only if you’ve downloaded the FamilyBase Companion app to your teen’s phone.
Cost: $4.99 per month, per account. Free 30-day trial available.
Learn more about Verizon cell phone plans.
Other parental control apps
If your carrier doesn’t have parental controls or the controls it offers don’t fit your needs, consider a third-party app. Two popular options: Norton Family parental control (Android | iOS) and Net Nanny (Android | iOS). Both let you monitor usage, block specific apps and set time restrictions. These services will run you $49.99 and $12.99 per year, respectively. Just keep in mind that these apps tend to be more robust on Android devices than Apple devices, due to limits in the operating system.