If it were possible to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome because of texts from your mobile provider, Brett Anderson would be suffering from it.
The financial planner from Hudson, Wisconsin used to get a little 'ping' every time his family exceeded its monthly data usage. Every notice meant he was being charged another $15 for more gigabytes—it would add up to an extra $100 or so a month.
"We got bigger data plans, we put limits on the kids, and it was never enough," Anderson says, reserving particular bitterness for his 18-year-old daughter's use of Snapchat.
The struggle over sharing a data plan is a decidedly modern American lament. Almost every family has a story about carefully dividing gigabytes and then sniping at each other when those allocations inevitably are exceeded.
Some 55 percent of parents have limited the amount of time their teenagers can go online, according to a survey by Pew Research Center, and 65 percent have digitally "grounded" them by taking away their devices at one time or another.
But it is emotionally fraught territory. According to Pew, smartphones are nearly ubiquitous among young adults. And the youngsters tend to favor a vast array of data-sucking apps. Push back against that generational momentum, and you have a classic parent-child power struggle on your hands, which is especially difficult to manage when the "kids" on the family plan are anywhere from 10 to 30.
So how can families navigate this tricky business of data usage, without going broke or killing each other, or perhaps both? Some tips:
Go unlimited. This solution is elegant if not necessarily cheap. Having largely gone away as cell providers capitalized on people's smartphone addictions, unlimited packages are now back with a vengeance.
The Unlimited Freedom plan from Sprint offers one relatively affordable option—$50/month for the first line, $40/month each for two lines, $30/month each for four lines, and the fifth line free. That means a family of four, with additional fees and such, should be covered for around $150 a month.
Unlimited is the route Brett Anderson finally opted for a couple of months ago, since data wars were "not a fight I wanted to keep having." (More specifically, he did not wish to anger his wife with data-usage criticisms, and be relegated to the family couch.)
Set parental controls. Providers like Verizon and AT&T offer ways to digitally fence in your teen, before they suck up every gigabyte on the family plan. Verizon's FamilyBase and AT&T's Smart Limits, both available for $4.99 a month, offer functions like capping your kid's data usage, or limiting them to certain times of day. Stand-alone smartphone apps like Norton Family and Net Nanny offer similar services.
Educate the kids. Some kids may not actually be aware that streaming videos while not on a wi-fi network will eat up family data. That is what happened with Philadelphia mom Claire McGuire recently when her 13-year-old son Leo blew through a month's worth of data in just 10 days by enjoying the meme site iFunny while on the school bus. "Oops," she says wryly.
A gentle reminder set him straight, as did a docked allowance.
Make the kids pay. There is no law against getting kids to chip in for their smartphone usage. Indeed, it can be a useful teaching moment.
On FamZoo, an online family banking service, parents get kids to contribute an average of $18.33 a month, says Bill Dwight, founder and chief executive.
Or you can drop the hammer, and get them to pay for the whole shebang. That is what Brett Anderson eventually did with his son, who is 26 and living on his own but was still riding the family plan.
Since his son never answered his phone anyways, Anderson got fed up with paying the bill, and kicked him off.
"If you don't have enough data, and it's so important to you, you can pay your own darn way," Anderson remembers. "There's nothing wrong with saying that."
(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)