If you've been alive in the last, say, 10 years, you've been subject to the spate of articles claiming that smartphones are destroying a generation. Today's young people, the argument goes, are more isolated, have shorter attention spans, and...
Photo: Pabak Sarkar
Sorry, what? I just had to check something. Anyway, smartphones are allegedly bad for kids.
Now this may or may not be the case -- I tend to think headlines such as "destroying a generation" might be a tad hyperbolic (so much for that generation! Bye) -- and as anyone who's sat at a table with a Baby Boomer on an iPad knows, these things aren't a problem for just young people.
Nonetheless, one can't restrict one's mother from her devices, but we still have some control over our kids. And I do think, both as a parent and as someone who incessantly fondles her phone like a lover, that our ability to focus and be in the moment has eroded since we have what are essentially slot machines in our hands at all times.
Kids also don't have the maturity and perspective to manage constant temptation and the social pressures that come with 24/7 connectivity -- so the longer parents can delay the first smartphone, the thinking goes, the better off kids will be. When I was researching this story, a friend messaged and said he had gotten advice to hold off as long as possible, because the phone "turns them into different people".
But what if all your kid's friends have smartphones and your child is the only one without? You don't want them to be totally out of step with their peers.
The good news: Some parents are managing it, waiting to buy smartphones for their children until Year 8 or later, and their kids aren't pariahs. I spoke to a few parents who have successfully managed to delay for their best tactical advice.
Take the Wait Until 8th Pledge
Cue the Wait Until 8th Pledge. It's essentially an online sign-up sheet where parents promise that they won't get their kid a smartphone until Year 8 -- as long as a critical mass of other parents at the school takes the pledge too. Once 10 families have signed on, you'll receive a message stating that the pledge is in effect at your school.
Wait Until 8th is the brainchild of Brooke Shannon, a mum in Austin who was concerned enough about the erosion of non-digital playtime and family time to take action. Shannon told me in an email, "since we launched this spring, more than 3,000 families from 49 states and 500+ schools have said yes to the waiting on the smartphone."
Android/iOS. There are some great new podcasts for kids out there. While in the car this past weekend, my four-year-old and I listened to NPR's 'Wow in the World' and learned the gross-but-fun fact that planarian flatworms poop out of their mouths, and picked up a new kid joke (Where do cows go on holiday? The mooooooooon.)
Afraid your kid won't be able to get in touch with you in an emergency? No worries -- the pledge only extends to smartphones, and Wait Until 8th keeps a Pinterest page of phone watches and flip phones for kids who need to communicate with their parents after school and while commuting.
But what if you fill out your pledge but no one else does? It's still a new thing, after all, and many parents won't have heard of it. This is where a little community organising comes in, according to Walker Royall, a dad of three in Dallas who recently got the Wait Until 8th Pledge going for his son's Year 4 class.
Get a Critical Mass of Refuseniks
The first step, says Royall, is talking to the other families in your kid's year. There will certainly be some parents who have the same concerns and worries about exclusion that you do. Royall says he started by chatting with a few parents in his son's Year 4 class, and found that "some were receptive and some were eh". So he followed up with an email to the class list to express his concerns: "There were 65 families in the email blast, and over a week we were able to get quite a bit of participation -- almost half. It really takes the pressure off the parents who want to hold out."
Side note: Year 4? My son's in Year 2, and I thought I had at least until Year 6 before I had to start worrying. But no: Royall tells me that in his son's Year 3 class there were eight or nine kids with iPhones.
Get the School Administration on Board
I highly doubt there is an educator alive who isn't aware of social-media bullying. The principal at Royall's kids' school in Dallas hosts a beginning-of-the-year coffee, and this year commented that two of the biggest issues the school is facing are smartphones and inclusion. So if you can get your school's administration to speak to families about the dangers of smartphones, attention and social-media bullying, your requests to do the Wait Until 8th pledge might get more traction with fellow parents.
Let's be honest here: It isn't just children who are glued to their devices. Royall noted that when the principal was discussing students and smartphones, she pointed out that the parents were almost as bad at the kids. If you're hunched over your device rather than fully participating in conversations or non-digital activities with your family, what are your kids supposed to think about the relative value of a smartphone versus a book or a fishing rod or a paintbrush? If children see that adults can't get through a restaurant meal or a camping weekend without digital input, they won't learn how to do so either (or even believe that's valuable).
When I envisioned having children, my happy fantasies included curling up and reading my childhood favourites to my kids. I pictured evenings of Little House on the Prairie, Pippi Longstocking and Little Women. When my two boys came along, I worried that their affection for board books about farm equipment meant that they wouldn't even consider reading, say, Anne of Green Gables, because that was a 'girl's book' and they might be interested only in boys' stories.
Make it About the Money
I'm in charge of our budget, and I already have a hard time justifying things I think are a good idea, such as music or swim lessons. A smartphone and data plan for a kid is something I'm going to seriously baulk at paying for. KJ Dell'Antonia, the former Motherlode blogger for the New York Times, says that her kids pay for their mobile phones and monthly plans themselves, which might be onerous enough that your kid will make do with a flip phone (or nothing) for another year or two. A friend told his daughter she could have a smartphone when she could pay for it herself -- which kept her with just an iPod until her second year of university.
Don't Totally Deprive Them of Electronics...
No smartphone doesn't mean no digital experiences at all. Royall's kids can use the iPad on weekday mornings before breakfast and after dinner. In between, they have to entertain themselves. Dell'Antonia has a no-television-or-video-games-on-the-weekdays rule, but "open season" on the weekends. Her older kids (11 and 13) also have iPads.
... And Encourage Real Life, Fun Activities
"Keep them active," says Royall. "Get them a ball and a bike." He describes his kids as "very social", so there's always someone to play with, and he made a point of getting at least a couple of families in his kid's social circle to do the Wait Until 8th, so "there's buy-in [about the value of real-life fun] and always someone to play with".
Molly Bosscher, a mother of two in Virginia who held off on the smartphone until her boys were juniors in high school, echoes this: "Be outside with your children. Encourage outdoor things like jumping from high places into water or being with their friends on a river. Go camping. Things like that. Take walks every week. Make them do sports. And talk with them -- like every night at dinner." Just as parents (try to) teach kids about healthy food versus treats, we can also help them balance their digital time with IRL activities.
It still doesn't sound all that easy to me -- when my kids are in high school, I likely won't know as many of the families as I do now in primary school. And other families might not share our values. Royall told me that a Year 5 parent in his kids' school tried to get the Wait Until 8th pledge going and received only three responses. And ultimately kids are going to make their own decisions, just as adults do, and sometimes that decision is going to be to hibernate and stare at a screen.
But we might get lucky. Molly Bosscher said her son, now a university student, is in the process of selecting a new phone. The latest iPhone? An Android? Nope, he wants a flip phone.