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Parents pledge to keep kids smartphone free, for now
A sign from the grassroots campaign encouraging parents to delay buying kids a smartphone. - photo by Sara Israelsen-Hartley
A few times a month, Stephanie Krauss's 8-year-old son would ask for his own smartphone because all his friends at school were getting them.

"I just feel like my 8-year-old is definitely too young to have that stuff," said Krauss, a 35-year-old mother from Mountain Green who was determined to hold strong against her son's requests which were often echoed by his 5-year-old brother. "Kids are getting these phones with internet and access to all these social media accounts too early."

Krause felt alone in her view, until she got an email from a friend about "Wait Until 8th," a national pledge signed by more than 8,000 parents who've vowed to wait until at least 8th grade, or around 13, 14 years old, to get their child a smartphone.

Despite survey data showing 10 is the average age when kids get a smartphone, the pledge highlights a growing number of parents who find themselves trying to delay ownership of a device that allows kids access to social networks, cyberbullying, pornography, sexting, addictive games and a host of other parental nightmares.

"This is perfect," Krauss remembers thinking a few months ago. "It helps parents kind of bond together and realize that many of us are feeling the same way. It helps us withstand the pressure we're getting from our kids to get phones."

Industry pushback

And it's not just parents who are pushing back. Former tech executives from Google, Facebook and other companies recently announced a new Center for Humane Technology, to combat what they originally helped create.

The group wants to "reverse the digital attention crisis and realign technology with humanity's best interests."

In other words, they want the tech behemoths to stop competing for eyeballs every second of every day, and instead offer products that strengthen people like a GPS, which serves a purpose, but doesn't beg for attention after delivering you to your destination.

They also want users to realize how technology is designed to entice, and then respond by making more deliberate choices using an alarm clock instead of a phone, turning phone settings to grayscale instead of color and allowing notifications only from people, not platforms.

"Humane Design starts by understanding our most vulnerable human instincts so we can design compassionately to protect them from being abused," their website proclaims.

And kids need the most protection, says Colby Zintl, vice president of external affairs for Common Sense Media, because their brains are "not fully formed and are most vulnerable to this type of manipulation."

Which is why the nonprofit media education group partnered with the Center for Humane Technology to release a "Truth about Tech" public awareness campaign, to "really focus on what's going on behind the screen, and the (artificial intelligence) machines that are pointed at our kids' brains," says Zintl.

Common Sense Media knows parents worry about the amount of media entanglement in their kids' lives: 77 percent of parents say their children are distracted by phones and don't pay attention when they're together, one-third of families report phone use as a daily source of conflict, and half of teens themselves say they feel addicted to their phones.

Even tech pioneers like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs worried about and limited the amount of time their own kids spent with technology.

But the campaign, part of Common Sense Media's larger "Digital Well-Being Initiative," isn't an anti-tech assault, Zintl emphasizes.

"We're for tech that's for kids," she said. "We're for tech that works for humans, not just for the tech companies' bottom line."

Wait Until 8th

Like Krauss, Texas mom Brooke Shannon knew she wasn't getting a smartphone for her kids, 10, 9 and 5. She wanted them to spend more time playing outside, reading books and actually talking with their friends before they became "tethered" to a smartphone, she says.

And since they were going to wait, why not invite a few families to wait with them?

So she began the "Wait Until 8th" campaign a way to "give kids a few more years of childhood without all the distractions and dangers that come from this smartphone technology," Shannon says.

The pledge doesn't say anything about basic phones that allow calling and texting and which still exist, Shannon reminds parents all the time.

She also reminds parents that signing the pledge doesn't force parents to buy their child a smartphone in eighth grade. It just means that parents who sign it vow to preserve a smartphone-free childhood until at least eighth grade.

And more and more parents say they want to do just that. Since the pledge launched in March 2017, it's been signed by parents from every state.

Chris Gerosa, 45, of Lachmont, New York, signed "Wait Until 8th" last year after discovering that her community's tradition was to gift fifth-graders their first smartphone after graduating from elementary school.

"It's hard for adults to put down their smartphones," she said. "I can only imagine (how hard it is) for the children, and it exposes them to this whole world of social bullying, predators, and sexting and all these things that they're definitely not ready for."

Parent who sign the petition are encouraged to spread the word to their friends talking points and email templates are included on the website. Once there are 10 pledges per grade, per school, the pledge comes active.

Gerosa signed the pledge and sent emails, even starting a PTA subcommittee at her school to talk about the issues of technology and parenting "P.A.S.S." or Parenting Around Screens and Social Media. The committee has hosted events and invited parents to sign the pledge if they want.

They now have 80 students' parents who have signed the pledge at their school, and, despite Gerosa's fifth-grade daughter's objections that she would be ostracized for having a mom who started this movement, nothing bad has happened.

In fact, Gerosa and her daughter have stopped arguing about smartphones entirely because "it's off the table," she says.

"It was a hard battle for one hour, now it's done," Gerosa said. "They're not going to like it, but you're the parent."

Healthy limits

And that's the entire message of Naomi Schafer Riley's new book: "Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat: Strategies for Solving the Real Parenting Problems."

A journalist and mother of three kids, 11, 9 and 5, Riley writes about how parents can cut back on the amount of technology creeping into their children's lives.

If a kid needs to be picked up after soccer practice, they don't need a phone, she says, they need a watch. Tell them you'll be parked at the curb at 5 p.m., waiting for them. And if something happens during practice, teach them how to approach their coach or teacher and ask for help also a valuable skill, Riley says.

For younger kids who beg to play on tablets and phones, Riley encourages parents to think about how their grandparents would have handled an irritable 2 or 3-year-old. Books? Crayons? imagination games? Not bringing them to a nice restaurant in the first place?

Yes, it's nice to have screens for long plane rides and trips to the emergency room, but when Riley attends her daughter's swim meets, she's amazed at the number of younger siblings sitting there glued to a tablet for hours.

She encourages parents to rethink the situations they're putting young children into "if the only way they can be there is with a screen," she said.

JoyLynn Jeppson, 47, of Heber, has a 6-year-old daughter who sometimes asks to use her mom's phone not so she can call or text anyone, but so she can play games or take videos of herself singing.

While Jeppson is opposed to the idea of kids having their own smartphone she too, signed the Wait Until 8th pledge she's also torn about just handing over an old smartphone to become her daughter's "toy."

"The old phone still can connect to our Wi-Fi, and letting her just have it (would) give her free rein to a lot of stuff without the maturity to handle it," she said. "She'd probably watch shows on Netflix all day if I let her."

Learning together

Parents have always seen themselves as the teachers, instructing their children how to walk and talk and ride a bike yet technology is changing that, says J. Mitchell Vaterlaus, an assistant professor of human development and family science at Montana State, who studies new media and technology in human development and families.

Now, it's the kids who are often leading the way into technological realms and parents sometimes interpret their kids' swiping and tapping as a learned skill, and assume it means their kids are ready to own the technology itself, says Vaterlaus.

Because kids see technology as much more social, while adults see it as more instrumental, Vaterlaus says, kids may be able to easily navigate through webpages, create videos and share Instragram stories, but maybe wouldn't think about adjusting their privacy settings or Facebook, or keeping personal information off Snapchat.

"If we give (our) kids this technology, we have to understand it," says Riley. "And if you don't have the time or energy, then the answer should be no."

But rather than avoid technology and its incredible potential entirely, Vaterlaus encourages parents who feel behind to either ask their child to show them how a certain app or platform works, or better yet, download the app themselves and learn how to use it with their adult friends.

Then, if the parent is still concerned about the technology for their child, they can sit down and talk about it together.

"Kids want to be a part of the process," Vaterlaus says. "If you're going to put a rule in place, have that discussion with the child. Let the child be a part of that."
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