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Broken records and smartphones

February 28th,2024 | Opinion

Admittedly, I sound like a broken record – every day at home, sometimes in this column – but when I read an article in The Guardian this month, I had the moderately hopeful feeling that the needle had jumped the scratch and moved to the next song on the disc.

Here’s the song with the scratch: “Smartphones are harming our children.” (I know, right, I’m annoying even myself typing that much-recited complaint.) Here’s the recent headline: “‘It went nuts’: Thousands join U.K. parents calling for smartphone-free childhood”. 

According to the article, a pair of worried moms in the U.K. wanted to see if they could “embolden” a few like-minded, concerned parents in their community to band together and delay giving their kids smartphones until at least 14, with no social media access until 16.

“But what they expected to be a small group of friends who help ‘empower each other,’” said the article, “has turned into a nationwide campaign after the group reached the 1,000-person capacity within 24 hours.” As of mid-February, their local WhatsApp group had grown to 4,000 members. 

Wow! Finally, some good headlines around kids, parents and smartphones.

Back in 2019 when I used this column to encourage parents to put off giving their kids a smartphone until at least Grade 8 (not my original idea: https://www.waituntil8th.org/) it was met with radio silence. I prodded a close friend and respected parent with two girls in high school for her thoughts. Her retort of “Yah, good luck with that” was punctuated with an audible snort. 

Five years later and the data keeps pouring in about the damage social media apps on phones are doing to millions of kids. New York City, among others, is suing social media giants for fomenting a “nationwide youth mental health crisis.” CEOs of Meta, TikTok and others offered tepid apologies when hauled in to testify in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. The population at large is finally waking up to the fact that social media is the new “Big Tobacco” of our generation.

Even for parents who read the studies and know the data, it’s a Herculean struggle to try and impose limits to protect our kids. For my part, I admittedly didn’t fully live up to the “wait until the eighth.” Both my kids now have a phone, but it’s what they call a “dumb” or a “brick phone”: the one in Grade 5 can text his friends, listen to his music and audiobooks, take photos – and that is it. My kid in Grade 7 can do that plus a few games and 15 minutes of YouTube. Despite the daily, unrelenting and highly unpleasant lobbying for Snapchat and the rest, the answer is still no to social media and unrestricted access to the internet at large. 

And yes, five years later, I did manage to find other parents out there who have imposed similar limits and are weathering the storm of demands that come with the invention of smartphones. 

What’s the saying? “(Online) safety in numbers.”

Parents, keep fighting the good fight. You are not alone.

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