As debate swirls across the internet about social media and its effect on teenagers, one Austin mom has created a movement to try to delay introducing smartphones to children until they are at least 14 years old.
In an effort to persuade and support families in her children's elementary school to wait until their kids were at least 14 or in 8th grade to give them smartphones, Brooke Shannon created the Wait Until 8th pledge last spring, which asks parents to promise "not to give your child a smartphone until at least 8th grade as long as at least 10 other families from your child’s grade and school pledge as well."
"Our hope is to create a support network for those parents who would like to wait on giving their child a phone," Shannon told TODAY Parents. "Every family has various circumstances and dynamics that will shape this decision. We hope by creating this pledge, parents that would like to wait will feel more empowered to do so."
The pledge has become a full-blown movement now, with over 2000 commitments from parents in over 500 schools and in 49 states.
Shannon's daughters are still young; her oldest, Grace, is in 4th grade. But when she saw children in their elementary school with smartphones, she began to talk with other parents about the potential dangers that come along with smartphones — citing distraction, sleep impairment, cyberbullying, and exposure to inappropriate material on the internet, among other concerns — and she decided to try to make a change in their community and beyond.
After recruiting a group of friends to begin the Wait Until 8th movement, some of whom are now part of the pledge's website, Shannon got her children on board too. "At first, my older two daughters questioned why I was starting the pledge, but when I explained to them I wanted them to have a group of friends to wait with, they understood," she said.
Now, she said her family feels completely supported by their community in their quest to hold off on smartphones for their kids. "There are 20 other families in my 4th grader's class on board and 13 families on board from my 3rd grader's class," said Shannon. "Plus, families are signing across our school district, so when the elementary schools merge in middle school, there will be even more children waiting together."
Shannon said she understands that for some families, such as those whose children rely on technology for medical reasons like Type 1 diabetes, the Wait Until 8th pledge is not appropriate. But for other parents who argue they need phones to reach their children for reasons like shared custody arrangements, she hopes they will consider lower tech options.
"In situations where a phone is needed to only reach a child, we suggest buying a basic flip phone," Shannon said. "The basic flip phone avoids many of the dangers and distractions of a smartphone. You can give your child a basic phone and still sign the Wait Until 8th pledge. The pledge is for smartphones only."
TODAY Tastemaker and child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa said the Wait Until 8th movement could be very helpful to parents, but in the end, the choice is still up to the individual family.
"This initiative helps families in two ways," said Dr. Gilboa. "For parents who are getting most of their 'What's the right age?' information from their kids, this normalizes the idea that most kids don't need — want yes, need no — a smart phone before 8th grade. For parents who are considering holding off but overwhelmed by the societal norms of younger-and-younger for smart phone access, this can be the extra starch for their spine to say, 'I knew I was right about this.'"
But, said Dr. Gilboa, "Since it's not legislated, each parents still gets to decide what works in their family."
Shauna Ogeerally, a mom of two children ages 15 and 10 in Winter Garden, Florida, told TODAY Parents she feels that these decisions have to be made for each child individually, and that smartphones can have some positive benefits for children under the age of 14.
"My children go to a charter school, so not all their close friends live anywhere near us to go run and play at their house," said Ogeerally. "Their phones allow them to FaceTime and 'hang out.' Honestly, I feel it would hurt their social lives if they weren't able to do that, since they would only be able to communicate with friends when they are at school or activities."
Though situations might vary, Wait Until 8th creator Shannon hopes parents will understand that this pledge is meant to create support and to bring parents together.
"When families think about this important decision, I hope they feel more empowered to wait on getting their child a smartphone," said Shannon. "There is a huge community of parents behind the Wait Until 8th movement, and you don't have to feel like you're the only family holding out.
"Childhood is too short to waste on the distractions and dangers that come with a smartphone. Let's let kids be kids a little longer."