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David Zax

A View from David Zax

A SIM Card for Domineering Parents

Look out, kids. Big Mother is watching.

  • May 24, 2012

This week, Vodafone starts offering a service called Bemilo that gives parents unprecedented control over how their kids use their cell phones. Bemilo, a £2.95-a-month service (that’s about five bucks), uses a special SIM card that can go in any phone or tablet. Amazingly, and somewhat terrifyingly, parents can log on to a web interface that basically serves as a remote dashboard to their kid’s phone or tablet. There, parents can read all texts, including deleted ones, and can even control who their kid has contact with. Parents can also monitor and restrict browsing of certain websites (read: porn). The BBC has the full story, as does The Telegraph.

“It’s a SIM that is just like any other SIM you would buy for any other network, but it enables parents to have full control in the context of safety,” Bemilo boss Simon Goff, said to the BBC. “They can allow or disallow certain contacts to call them, and they can set the times of day the phone can operate.”

Bemilo’s proponents say that the SIM card-based service will actually be liberating for children, freeing them from bullying and pressures to “sext.” A report from England’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has documented that when sexting occurs, it’s often due to pressure exerted by a teenage boy. Now a teenage girl can more easily fend off unwanted sexting solicitations: “Bobby, you know I have Bemilo…”

The service will also curb the scourge of late-night texting that has apparently left kids sleep-deprived. Said Goff: “If you put a child to bed, and we’re talking about young adults here, those who are just under 16 years old, the parents often think they’ve gone to bed - but then they find out that they’re texting very late into the night or accessing the web into the night.”

The cellphone-on-a-leash trend is catching on Stateside, too, reports Suzanne Kantra of USA Today. If you’re looking for “the most comprehensive set of parental controls”–location tracking, alerts when a new number calls your kid, and alerts when your kid downloads a new app–then Sprint Guardian, from Sprint, is for you. The service will launch this summer and cost $9.99 per month (but can be assigned to up to five different lines). All four major carriers–Sprint, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile–in fact offer location tracking services, usually based on GPS, though sometimes based on triangulation from cell phone towers. Other features offered by some of the carriers include locking out texting while driving (cf. Sprint’s Drive First and T-Mobile’s Drive Smart), and alerting parents to “risky behavior” like late-night texting.

This trend of carrier-assisted helicopter parenting is hardly new, even if the technology is becoming more and more sophisticated. This CNET article from five years back introduced an AT&T service that offered parental control over texting, IMing, downloads, and the like. And there’s plenty of third-party software out there for monitoring phones; one example among many is Phone Sheriff. Phone Sheriff, actually, can be deployed not just on children, but on employees as well. “What does your child or employee do on their mobile?” asks Phone Sheriff’s site. (I’d hate to work for a company that thinks of children and employees more or less interchangeably.)

I don’t have children myself, and came of age in an era before smartphones and the myriad types of trouble they allow teens to get into. Even so, I’m skeptical that services or software such as these are really an improvement to teenagers’ lives. Claims that services like Bemilo will in fact “liberate” kids from bullying smack of excuses made for parents who simply can’t let go and acknowledge the fact that aspects of their children’s lives will forever remain beyond their control. Want to helicopter parent something? For now, stick to your dog.

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