'I, like, so totally agree' to stop texting

Parents wrestling with soaring cellphone bills put curbs on children

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / April 13, 2008

It was all spelled out in the clearest terms: "I, Michela Parmeggiani, do promise to limit my cellphone use . . . NO TEXT MESSAGING IS ALLOWED ON THIS PHONE! . . . I, like, so totally agree."

Parmeggiani, 12, happily signed her name to the "Cellphone Usage Contract" drawn up by her father, earning back the phone that she lost in November when she sent her family's cellphone bill $220 higher than usual, using 1,022 extra calling minutes and more than 200 text messages.

"I was, like, really mad at myself for using so many minutes," said Parmeggiani of Stoughton, who went without the phone that had been her lifeline to music and friends. Life for the past few months has been "really different," she said. "I was used to having [my] cellphone in my pocket."

Cellphones are the modern-day conduit for whispering in someone's ear, passing a note, flirting, and plain old talking - especially for young people. According to the mobile measurement firm M:Metrics, 15.6 million people between 13 and 17 had cellphones as of February, up 37 percent since November 2004. Text messaging has grown with the proliferation of phones, with more than 11 million in the age group texting today.

All that connectivity creates a parenting predicament: Let their children rack up hundreds of dollars in one-word text messages and quick calls or take the phones away. Often the solution may be picking a better plan after parents learn their lesson with one big bill.

Every generation finds itself facing the chasm between what an older generation deems appropriate and what the young take for granted. But cellphones add a twist for today's parents.

"Often, it feels to parents that every conceivable solution is just unthinkable - to deprive them of cellphones is unthinkable, to pay $1,000 is unthinkable," said Rae Simpson, program director for parenting education and research at the Center for Work, Family and Personal Life at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Parents stretching to pay exorbitant phone bills also wonder how, if they take the phones away, their teenagers will stay in touch with friends - and with them.

Some parents fault themselves for letting their child's cellphone use get out of hand, but they also wish cellphone companies made it easier to manage the challenge.

Donnie Dugan found himself facing a $1,025 bill one month, driven mostly by the texting, ringtone downloads, and talking of his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Amanda. He had already turned various services off, only to find that them re-activated. The bill drove him to extreme measures: confiscation.

Jill Aldort, senior analyst at Yankee Group, a research and consulting group, said most family cellphone plans are sold with an emphasis on voice, making it relatively easy for a family to find itself taken aback because phones are now used for everything from text messages to Web browsing.

But carriers battling to keep customers are increasingly offering ways to fight back - sometimes for a price. The carriers offer plans with unlimited messaging, as well as more specialized tools .

AT&T last year unveiled a program allowing parents, for a $4.99 monthly fee, to limit the number of messages and the amount of money their children spend on downloads. Parents can also control the periods of time when the phone is used.

T-Mobile has introduced a kidConnect plan, which makes it impossible for children to rack up extra charges; they cannot use the phone once they have reached their calling and messaging limit. The children can still use their phones to call 911 or to talk to other T-Mobile customers.

Sprint Nextel Corp. offers phones with parental controls, allowing parents to manage whom their children call or text message and to prevent access to various services.

Verizon Wireless also allows parents to limit to whom they communicate, but does not provide any services to control children texting except for turning that feature off. "Most customers do not go over their bundles," spokesman Michael Murphy said in an e-mail. "We work with customers to get them on the right plan."

All carriers allow people to check their balance and usage by phone or website.

Skydeck, a startup, is developing something that could potentially be more useful - a widget that sits in a Web browser and acts like a cellphone gas gauge, automatically updating to show the minutes and messages used. "The problem is that it's incredibly easy for kids to rack up charges, and parents don't find out until the end of the month," said Jason Devitt, Skydeck chief executive. "You can go six months before you realize there is a problem."

Prepaid wireless services such as Virgin Mobile USA, Boost Mobile, and AT&T's GoPhone, offer the surest bet. The pay-as-you-go plans require children to exercise discipline and restraint, because they don't have the cushion to continue texting or talking once they reach the limit.

Parents say they are also shocked at how much the companies charge for a service that costs the carriers very little. Text messages usually are, at maximum, 160 characters, so they use few network resources, said Aldort, the Yankee Group analyst. Yet the price for sending individual messages keeps going up. Now most carriers charge 20 cents per individual text message, unless customers buy text messages in bulk, including bundles of unlimited texts or hundreds of messages for a flat fee.

Chris Murray, senior counsel for Consumers Union, said the high price of individual text messages creates an incentive for people to buy those bundles. Carriers like it too, because it provides predictable monthly income from a customer.

Christine DeSantis of Burlington recently found herself in a dilemma when her 15-year-old daughter, Tori, sent nearly 10,000 text messages in a month, slamming her mother with an $800 cellphone bill.

DeSantis had signed up for a bundle of text messages, but when the big bill came, she learned that it did not cover all messages. She promptly turned off text messaging, plunging her daughter in a "texting coma" for a few weeks. It was difficult, but it also offered a chance to re-examine her relationship with her daughter.

"I had to look at the way I was parenting her," DeSantis said. "Because if I'm allowing her to sit here and write and read that many a month, I'm obviously not paying much attention to it. We all just got so accustomed to seeing the top of her head."

Tori said relationships with some of her friends had suffered since she stopped text messaging, but she has a new perspective.

She wants the text messaging back, but said the messages she spent so much time typing were low on content. She feels more connected to her family, and it strikes her as odd when she is hanging out with friends who spend much of the time texting other people. "It's kind of annoying," Tori said. "But I'm like, I was kind of like that at one time."

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at

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