Can T-Mobile's New FamilyMode Solve Your Child's Smartphone Safety Issues?

My digital native daughter is still a little too untrustworthy to get a smartphone. We tested T-Mobile's new parental control technology to see if it could make it a little easier to keep her in line.
Syda Productions/Shutterstock

At 11, my daughter is one of the few kids in her class who doesn't have her own smartphone. And that's because she'd probably give a Russian hacker a run for his money in the tech savviness department. She's the girl who can memorize a password after watching you key it in just once, changes all your phone settings if she's given access for five minutes, and has been known to sneak down in the dead of night, after memorizing the new password, to log a marathon session of Animal Jam on the computer.

Needless to say, giving her a small, easily concealed tech product to run rampant on the internet is the stuff of nightmares for me. But T-Mobile's new FamilyMode, which costs $10/month, definitely enticed me with its promise of helping to police our little hacker. The app allows you to place limits on internet usage, whether by blocking whole categories of content (no dating sites or adult sites, for instance), or just placing time limits on how much time your child (or ahem, your spouse) can spend surfing the web or playing online apps. You can even individualize it, so your kiddo only gets a half hour of Netflix, for instance. And yes, you can set bedtimes, too, so there's no surfing between certain hours—or even take internet access away with a press of a button for a device-free dinner or to ground a grumpy tween. (Score!)

The app also logs how much time each person in your family spends online, so you can find out exactly how much time you're wasting on social media—and how much time they're spending watching their favorite YouTube stars. (I'm thinking it might be smart to trade chores for YouTube time—something you can easily do with the app's Reward feature.) And you can also see exactly what sites your family members are visiting, so you can spot any trouble spots and have a chat with your child about it.

There's also an additional hub, called Home Base ($20), that you can use to extend the coverage to any other connected devices in your network, including computers, smart TVs, gaming systems, and most tablets. (Amazon Fire products aren't covered.)

Setup was relatively easy—the app had come preloaded on our test phones, so I basically just had to plug in the Home Base and start changing settings on my daughter's phone account. I tried to extend the network to our home devices, but as the Home Base discovered our devices on our wifi, it was hard to tell based on the info displayed which Apple device (out of five in our home) it was referencing. That made it tough to limit her ability to get on the desktop, without keeping me from surfing past 10 on my laptop.

My daughter definitely tried her hardest to get around the limits. Very quickly, she figured out that she could download content she wanted to watch or read to the phone, so she can keep watching and reading after her device's set "bedtime." Because it doesn't block all access to the phone, your child can still play with plenty of phone features and games that don't require online access after hours—and you need to set up Family Allowances, a separate feature, to block late-night texting and calling. And she told me, with a wicked gleam in her eye, that once she figured out my password, she could go on my phone and change her FamilyMode settings. (Scary!)

Clearly, I'm still going to have to play phone police when (or is it if?) we get her a smartphone. But FamilyMode may help me sleep a little bit better at night—as long as I can keep my own phone (and its password) under wraps.

Dr. Michael Thompson explores what it means to raise your child in a digital world.



Parents may receive compensation when you click through and purchase from links contained on this website.