Virgin Mobile, Walmart let parents set phone curfews

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What age is the right age to give your kid a smartphone? That’s for you to decide. Whenever you’re ready, Virgin Mobile and Walmart want to make the process as pain-free as possible with wireless plans and parental controls you can change on the fly -- right from your smartphone. Mom and Dad won't even need to be on Virgin Mobile themselves to make adjustments.

A new product from Sprint's prepaid division, Virgin Mobile Custom plans, goes on sale August 9 at more than 1,800 Walmart stores and starts at as little as $6.98 per month (for 20 text and 20 voice minutes). The three new Android phones that work with the service start at $80 without a contract. More importantly, you can set which hours Junior can use Facebook or WhatsApp.

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Using the Custom Control app, parents can easily select which activities they want their children engaged in and for how long. For example, come dinner time you could zap Minecraft from 5 to 6 p.m., and when it’s time for bed you could have only the alarm clock app be available. You can also place limits on calling and texting.

These restrictions work over both cellular and Wi-Fi connections, which is a first for carrier-based parental controls. Yes, your little one could activate airplane mode, but as he goes back online, the device will lock down as you commanded.

Having all these options won't do parents any good if they're on another carrier in the middle of a contract.  That's why Virgin Mobile will make its Custom Control app available for all Android and iOS devices come September 1.

To help keep families on budget, Virgin Mobile Custom plans let you decide how much you want to spend and on what. For instance, you could purchase only unlimited texting for $10, allowing your child to grow into the phone. Or you could purchase Unlimited Facebook or Unlimited Music Streaming for separate fees. There's almost a dizzying array of options.

Virgin Mobile Custom lets you adjust your plan right from your device. Using helpful little sliders, you decide how many texts, voice minutes and GB of data you need. And if you wind up spending less with the adjustments you've made, Virgin will let you apply that difference to the next month's bill.

Virgin's customization extends to setting how much talk, text and data each device on your plan can use. So, if you want Sue to get 20 percent of your gigabytes and Joe 10 percent, it takes just a few taps of the screen.

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The phones that support Virgin Mobile Custom phones aren’t very advanced — only one out of the three is 4G. However, the devices deliver decent specs for the money. The $80 ZTE Emblem is a 4-inch Android Jelly Bean phone. The $100 LG Pulse delivers a bigger 4.5-inch display and the newer Android KitKat software, and the 4-inch $130 LG Unify adds 4G LTE.

Overall, Virgin Custom looks like a compelling option for families who want to keep better tabs on what they’re spending and take more control over what their kids are doing on their phones.