Before the news world blew up in our faces last week, the link that kept popping up on my newsfeed was something called “Wait Until 8th.”
A group of parents in Texas started a pledge to support each other making the decision to hold off on getting their kids smartphones until eighth grade—and the movement is gaining traction across the country. It’s an attempt to create a peer group of parents on the same page in their decision to hold off on smartphones–in a world where there are so many influences pulling hard in the opposite direction.
I support this movement. I tend to do my own thing as a parent (I have six kids, people) and as a person, and am comfortable with that, but I completely get the idea that other parents would want a community of people making the same decision to give them strength.
Yes, I think it’s best for kids to wait until eighth grade at the earliest to get smartphones. That being said, I didn’t really wait with my older kids, so I’m saying it out of a place of what I wish I’d done rather than what I actually did. Out of my two kids who are in this age range, I gave them both permission to get smartphones at the end of seventh and sixth grade, respectively.
My then-sixth grader jumped for it like I was offering him the keys to a brand new sports car. My then-seventh grader said, “Is it OK if I hold off on that until next year? I don’t think I’m mature enough to have that yet.” Um…yeah. (At this point, I feel the need to point out: “Results May Vary.”)
But am I going to wait until eighth grade for my four younger kids to get smartphones? You bet. And I plan on taking a few extra steps as well.
Here’s why I think the Wait Until 8th pledge is a great thing, and why I think, in fact, it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
1. Smartphones have been found to be actively harmful to kids’ development. There have been numerous articles recently on the harmful effects of smartphones on emotional, cognitive and physical brain development (here are some samples from The Atlantic). Personally, I find that my iPhone is a tether around my brain. It keeps me from concentrating, as I am forever subconsciously waiting for the “ping” that tears me away from whatever I am doing, validates me, and tells me someone is “liking” a picture of mine or texting me. That’s pretty horrible–and I am 44 years old. I do not want my kids to be defined by others’ approval before they have even begun to define themselves.
2. But smartphones, sadly, are only part of the problem. While I certainly don’t see the need for a smartphone/omnipresent portable digital leash, I think they are only one part of the greater problem. Even if your kid doesn’t have a smartphone, chances are high that they have access to a computer or iPad. While I certainly prefer these options to the smartphone–unlike the smartphone, the iPad won’t yank your kid’s mental leash wherever your kid is every ten seconds–they are still portals into a world I don’t want my kids roaming around in unchaperoned.
3. Most kids have no “digital citizenship” education, either in terms of safety or kindness. Before you get your driver’s license, you undergo a Drivers’ Ed class and have time behind the wheel in which you are actively monitored by someone who has their license and experience. In contrast, when a kid gets involved in a group text, Musical.ly or Instagram, parents and teachers and older siblings know nothing about what the kid is doing. Even the parents who say “I’ll monitor what she is doing” tend to do their monitoring after the fact.
They do things like reviewing old texts after they have been sent and after someone has been callously dropped from the group chat, or someone has been unintentionally insulted. This isn’t even possible on networks like like Instagram Stories or Snapchats, which disappear after either viewing or a set amount of time, and can do damage without you as a parent even being aware they ever existed.
There is very little preemptive discussion of digital citizenship–explicitly teaching kids ways to be both careful of safety and careful of others’ feelings, ways in which unintentional mistakes could lead to long-range hurt. This is partially because many parents have neither the experience nor the know-how to teach their kids, but also because the discussions are rarely started unless a problem–whether online bullying or child predators–has already occurred.
4. Social media apps, thought of as benign and fun ways to pass time, are extremely problematic for elementary school-age kids. Musical.ly, the ‘gateway’ app to social media for kids as young as first and second grade, has kids performing music videos to popular songs of their choice. It’s a big hit with younger kids – and is also, not-so-coincidentally, a tremendous hit with child predators. These apps are also an easy way to magnify casual cruelty, as kids can “tag” one another in disappearing videos in which they call each other names in front of an audience.
To think of it in my generation’s terms, instead of just telling someone in the cafeteria, “You can’t sit with us,” social media gives little, impulsive kids the ability to shout, “YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US!” in potentially profane terms from a microphone to hundreds of people simultaneously. It’s dangerous on every level for very young kids: it prevents them from developing independent thought, it cripples their nascent self-esteem, and can have extremely negative effects on their long-term development.
5. That’s why I feel it’s not enough. If only there were a pledge where individual communities agreed that they would not allow their children to sign up for social media while in elementary school. Because social media’s entire power is derived from the way it magnifies messages, whether cruel or otherwise, and that all comes down to numbers: if only five people are on an app, it’s nothing, but if five hundred are on it, its influence is tremendous.
So here’s what I plan on doing: keeping my own younger kids off social media until they are around 12 or 13, based on their independent maturity levels. But before they reach that age, I plan on actively teaching them about these apps. That means sharing the research about cognitive development, but it also means discussing hypothetical online situations and how to handle them.
It means that I recognize that my responsibility as a parent extends online as well as offline, and that I will try to make my kids the best people they can be, both online and off. Will you please join me?