Print Post
  • "So much of our children’s day can be zapped because of a screen. But our children only get one childhood." Tweet This
  • "For parents holding the line on the smartphone and still worried about [their kids missing out], I encourage you to remember that it is okay and even good for kids to miss out on some of the drama tied to the smartphone and social media." Tweet This

This Christmas, after spending the majority of middle school as one of a handful of kids in her class without one, my 14-year-old daughter is finally getting a much-desired phone—not a smartphone exactly, but a basic phone that allows her to call, text, and take pictures. The phone conversation started in our family in about 7th grade, and whenever she would ask what to tell her friends to explain her lack of a smartphone, we would answer, “Tell them we’re waiting until the 8th.” That phrase, and the movement of parents behind it, has helped to bolster our decision to delay getting a smartphone for our child as long as possible. 

Wait Until 8th is the brainchild of concerned mother, Brooke Shannon, who created a simple pledge to give parents a way to support each other in pushing back against the overwhelming cultural pressure to introduce the smartphone at younger and younger ages. With over 23,000 parents in 50 states signing the pledge to date, the organization is now a full-fledged non-profit with a simple but profound message: “Childhood is too young to waste on a smartphone.” I recently had the opportunity to speak to Brooke about Wait Until 8th. Following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Alysse ElHageTell us how Wait Until 8th got started.

Brook Shannon: About three years ago, a group of parents and I started to discuss the mounting pressure to give our children their own smartphones at an early age. We questioned why so many young children at school, sports, and parties are glued constantly to their smartphones. We wondered why on earth a first grader needed the latest iPhone. We agreed that the average age a child receives a smartphone, 10 years old, is too young considering all the risks the device poses. Many of my friends said they wanted to wait as long as they could but knew it would be an uphill battle. Out of this dialogue came the idea to rally together as a community by starting a pledge. 

The Wait Until 8th pledge empowers parents to rally together to delay giving children a smartphone until at least 8th grade. By banding together, this will decrease the pressure felt by kids and parents alike over the kids having a smartphone. We are thrilled so many parents are jumping on board this movement.

Alysse ElHageI’ve heard you talk about an incident that sort of motivated you to start Wait Until 8th, which was driving past your daughters’ future middle school and seeing the kids coming out with their heads down staring at their phones. You’ve said you did not want this future for your daughters. What scared you about this sight?

Brook Shannon: Smartphones truly are changing the way kids are growing up. The writer Annie Dillard said: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Our children are spending a lot of their days and therefore their lives on devices. These devices have been engineered by the world’s brightest to capture their attention and their time, and they’ve done a terrific job on this front. Common Sense Media recently reported teens between the ages of 13 and 18 are spending, on average, 7 hours and 22 minutes a day on screens. And this number does not even take into account school work .

So much of our children’s day can be zapped because of a screen. But our children only get one childhood. My hope is that my daughters will look back one day on theirs and remember experiencing adventure, laughing (in person) with friends, exploring the outdoors, reading, creating, and even afternoons of complete boredom that turned into a great experience because they had to think of something outside the box to do.

Alysse ElHageI agree, and I think most parents want that for their children but find it increasingly hard when we are competing with the lure of screen time, which is why I was thrilled to see Wait Until 8th on the Today Show recently. I shared the clip on Facebook, where I received supportive comments from a few mothers. I’ve generally found that when I mention anything on social media related to delaying or limiting screen use, I get treated like I am attacking other parents. But something about your pledge seems to resonate with other parents in non-judgmental way. Why do you think that is, and what tips do you have for engaging in more fruitful conversations with other parents about these issues?  

Brooke Shannon: The Wait Until 8th movement is all about community! We want to support and empower parents who would like to delay the smartphone. We know there is a strength in numbers and something special about parents coming together to help each other. We also recognize the pledge is not for everyone. For some families, waiting until 8th grade may not seem realistic with the average age a kid getting a smartphone only being 10. For other families, this line in the sand sounds too early. The key is to think through this important decision, consider the pros and cons of the device, and carefully determine what the right age is for your family.

As far as engaging in more fruitful conversations with other parents, I think it is helpful to start with one or two friends and build from there. One great way to begin is to see if there are a few parents interested in reading a book about the issue and discussing it. There are so many great books about this topic. Also, you could explore if a documentary like “Screenagers” is playing in your community or even organize a viewing to raise awareness about the important issue.

I think the pendulum is swinging in certain communities on this important issue. We hope that in a few years, families everywhere will feel less pressure to grant the smartphone wish and more empowered to put healthy boundaries around technology.

Alysse ElHage: My daughter is now in 8th grade, where all the girls, except for her, are communicating on smartphones and on social media in ways that, maybe in the past, we communicated with handwritten notes or a phone call. And really this year, she's started to feel left out of some conversations and social events because she does not have a smartphone. But I know she’s also missing some of the drama, not to mention the many negative effects of social media on adolescent girls. I wish you’d speak to parents out there who are fearful that by not having a phone, their child is going to miss out on maybe normal teenage socializing that, for good or for bad, is now taking place online. What would you say to encourage them to stay the course? 

Brooke Shannon: First, I would love to address the irony of the FOMO (or fear of missing out) and then provide a few words of encouragement. Parents are buying their kids smartphones out of FOMO and this is actually leading to endless FOMO for their kids! FOMO haunts children and adults alike. The dictionary defines FOMO “as anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website.”

Many parents purchase a smartphone for their young children because they worry their kids will miss out if they don’t have one and their friends do. Once a few of their children’s friends have a new iPhone, FOMO is dialed up. They worry about their daughter or son being left out of a group text, Snapchat or Tik Tok video. Ironically, in response to FOMO, parents are arming their children with tiny FOMO-producing factories that fit in their pockets and never leave their side.

Do you want your son to feel left out? Give him a smartphone so he can see where all of his friends are (and he is not) on Snap Map. Would you like your daughter to realize she is not BFFs with three close friends according to the BFF caption on Instagram? Hand over the iPhone. Would you like your children to have a constant highlight reel of all of the events and parties they were not trendy enough to be invited to? You got it—give them a smartphone.

So, for parents holding the line on the smartphone and still worried about FOMO, I encourage you to remember that it is OK and even good for kids to miss out on some of the drama tied to the smartphone and social media. Look for ways to gather your children’s friends in person. Be the parent who raises their hand to shuttle them to an adventure or host lots of gatherings in your home, so your child can spend time with his or her friends in person.

Alysse ElHageThat’s great advice. Something I’ve found discouraging is how schools are dealing with the pressure of screens and phones. There are teachers who want middle school kids to bring laptops to class or who ask them to pull out their smartphones to look up information, even though they are supposed to leave the phones in the locker, which can be very embarrassing for kids who do not have a phone. What kind of response have you received from schools, and how do we educate more school administrators and teachers about the harms of screens to learning, social development, and mental health?

Brooke ShannonThe response we have received from schools about the Wait Until 8th pledge has varied. Some schools are very supportive and encourage parents to join the movement. They share our resources in school newsletters and host events. Other schools do not want to support the pledge because they are worried about parents who have already made the decision to give a smartphone to their children.

Many parents struggle with how to encourage educators to improve technology use in the classroom. From permissive use of smartphones during the school day to overuse of iPads, chromebooks, and laptops at the expense of educational fundamentals, our children need us to advocate for positive change at school. An excellent book to start with is Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse is Making Our Kids Dumber. The authors provide many real-world examples and cite multiple studies showing how technology use has created a wide range of cognitive and social deficits in our young people. 

Next, I would advise you to find your tribe. Gathering allies to encourage the appropriate use of technology in school is crucial. Start with parents you already know to build your core team. Request a meeting with your principal. If you hit a roadblock, elevate the conversation to the superintendent's office or meet with your respective school board members. If you are making little progress, grow your allies with a district-wide petition asking for change. Have parents make public comment at a school board meeting.  Also, two organizations I encourage parents to help with screens in schools are Away for the Day and EverySchool.

I think the pendulum is swinging in certain communities on this important issue. We're seeing vibrant support of the pledge and a desire for less screen time for children on the both the west and east coast. We hope this will ripple across the country, and in a few years, families everywhere will feel less pressure to grant the smartphone wish and more empowered to put healthy boundaries around technology.