Do Kid Smartphone Initiatives Work?

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By Kate Ashford

As people continue to study the effects of technology and kids, different campaigns have popped up to attempt to improve what many see as a problem—young kids getting smartphones. Today, the average kid gets their first phone at about age 10, and 95% of teens say they have access to a smartphone at home. In the UK, one in four kids under the age of six has a smartphone.

In answer to what sometimes feels like an onslaught of technology, movements like the Concord Promise and Wait Until 8th encourage parents to wait until at least the 8th grade to give their children smartphones—or to give them more basic phones before then.

“Smartphones are distracting and potentially dangerous for children yet are widespread in elementary and middle school because of unrealistic social pressure and expectations to have one,” says Wait Until 8th’s website.

Do those initiatives work, though? The answer isn’t exactly clear.

In many cases, the jury is still out

Because many of these initiatives are so new, and because they’re being adopted by parents of young children—think first and second grade—it’s hard to tell whether the movement will make an impact. Even though parents in different communities sign pledges or band together and agree to wait as long as possible before getting their child a smartphone, many of them don’t have children who’ve reached the common age in their area when that happens, so it hasn’t been tested.

“We have about 50 pledges for our elementary school,” says Pamela Boccia, who organized a Wait Until 8th effort in her community of Cranford, NJ. “It’ll take some time to see whether people hold true to it.”

In Norwell, MA, a movement called Turning Life On encourages healthy technology use and is made up of parents who pledge to delay giving kids a smartphone until 8th grade or who support the initiative without making that promise themselves. But the initiative is only a few months old.

“The ball is just starting to roll and gain momentum,” says Susannah Baxley, one of the group’s organizers. “My oldest is in fifth grade and I was like, ‘Why is it a social norm that these kids just get a phone at this age?’ It seems insane to me and there are no rules around it. We just carte blanche hand them a phone.”

Participation is small but helpful

In Hanover, MA, it’s common for kids to get smartphones in the fifth grade when they start middle school. When Leah Miller’s oldest child was in the fourth grade, a group of fourth-grade parents banded together and made the “Wait Until 8th” pledge. Now, in fifth grade, 10 to 15 students are without phones—and they know they won’t be getting one.

“They’re okay with it, because they have friends who don’t have it,” says Miller, a mother of three and a member of the local school board. “They don’t even ask. It’s awesome.”

Much of the impact is awareness raising

For some parents, it’s enough that these programs make parents think consciously about their choices when it comes to kids and smartphones. “My whole goal was to push that expectation [that kids got smartphones in fifth grade],” Miller says. “We just wanted to change the thought process, so people think about it for a second instead of just going with the flow.”

In North Stoneham, MA, a Wait Until 8th group has had a similar effect—parents simply hadn’t thought about it until the initiative focused their attention. “The norm had been this wave of, ‘Well, this is just what you do, you get your kids a cellphone so you can keep in touch with them,’” says Jessica Vallee Killilea, a mother of first-grade twins and one of the administrators of the group. “People didn’t stop to question why or what form it needed to take, what purpose it was serving. So I have had people who signed up for our Facebook group who haven’t yet signed the pledge but are asking the questions. That was our purpose.”

There are some arguments against the idea

Alexandra Samuel, a technology researcher and author of Work Smarter with Social Media, believes making smartphones taboo for students can backfire—leading them to sneak their usage of technology and social media. And she thinks waiting until kids are older to introduce the technology misses an opportunity to teach them how to use it responsibly while they’re still young enough to really listen to you.

“Do you want to wait until they’re 13 and ignore everything you say?” Samuel says. “Or do you want to make the most of those elementary school years when kids are typically more oriented toward their parents rather than their peers, and treat that as your window to lay down some good habits and principles and best practices?”

Samuel recently surveyed 10,000 parents about their family’s technology usage. “Parents who had kept their kids off of devices for as long as possible ran into a lot more trouble in the teen years once their kids did get online,” she says. “Your kid is in a much better position to handle the complexities of technology in their teen years if you’ve used the elementary years to lay the groundwork.”

Parents are also setting an example

As parents think about how they’d like to proceed and when to introduce technology to kids, Samuel hopes they’ll think about their own smartphone use. “I think there are some really interesting questions around these ubiquitous screens and the shift from a 40-hour work week to 60- and 70-hour work weeks and the feeling parents have that they can’t just come home and spend time with their families,” Samuel says. “That all has had a very significant impact on family life. To me, that is much more worthy of our attention and consideration.”

And, she says, set the tone in your own house. “If you’re worried about the impact of cell phones on your fourth grader,” she says, “turn your own phone off.”