What Went Wrong with the iPhone Purity Pledge?
Brooke Shannon, a mother of three in Austin, Tex., was traumatized by what she witnessed one day in 2017 while driving by her local middle school. She saw dozens of tweens standing around with their heads down, phones up, glazed eyes staring into their devices: alone together. “I went home and emailed 20 moms,” Shannon said, posing a heretical question: What if we kept phones away from kids until eighth grade? What if we all simply…waited?
She called her idea “Wait Until 8th.” It was hatched out of desperation a decade after the birth of the iPhone. A few months later, the world’s then-richest man Bill Gates admitted that he and then-wife Melinda had kept smartphones from their kids until they were 14. Then The Atlantic published “Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?”—a generation the article’s author dubbed “iGen.”
What had started as a simple idea within one Texas community “spread like wildfire,” recalled Shannon—and became a movement. Run entirely by volunteers, Wait Until 8th garnered media attention from outlets including NPR and the Today show. At its peak it collected tens of thousands of online signatures from parents in all 50 states, who promised to hold off on giving iPhones to their children—to “let kids be kids a little longer,” or at least until their frontal lobes further developed.
Dana Tuttle, a physician and mother in Marin County, Calif., remembered hearing about Wait Until 8th and weighing whether to commit her child, then eight, to the pledge. “It was such a depressing, inevitable feeling as a parent,” said Tuttle, who often found herself eating breakfast, looking out the window, “and watching all these 10-, 11-, 12- year-olds walking to school with their big backpacks, their arms extended, staring into their phones.”
“I didn’t know when exactly was the right time [to introduce phones],” said Tuttle. “I just knew waiting sounded good.” So she banded together with Dabney Ingram, a local mom with a doctorate in education research, and in 2018 they launched ScreenSense—“to help families and their communities teach healthy tech use to children.”
Suddenly, whatever sort of phone-rollout strategy parents adopted, there were options. The efforts signalled a growing awareness that maybe this smartphone thing wasn’t such a smart idea after all. It was a coast-to-coast wakeup call, led in large part by moms—mothers against smartphones, the Mothers Against Drunk Driving of the 21st century.
The tech hubs of San Francisco and Austin didn’t suddenly turn into Amish country, but parents like Shannon and Tuttle started noticing a subtle change. Suddenly, not every fifth grader in Marin was getting a phone for graduation. Communities were having conversations. Schools were hosting speakers. Families were at least establishing rules, if not always following them. “We were making progress,” said Tuttle. “I felt heartened. There was a noticeable cultural shift.”
And then Covid-19 arrived.
“The pandemic hit and it immediately sent everyone inward,” said Tuttle. Two years later, the fallout has been extreme. Adolescent screen time doubled during the pandemic, according to a recent study in JAMA—on average going to 7.7 hours a day. And that number doesn’t include online school—it’s just pure, unadulterated digital distraction.
According to the report, girls now spend twice as much time on social media as boys. As Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony emphasized, the extra screen time has impacted girls especially hard, causing significant increases in anxiety and eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, loneliness and cutting, and, according to the CDC, a 50 percent spike in visits to the emergency room for suspected suicide attempts.
That’s all the bad stuff. Of course, all usage is not equal: A solid chunk of the time that our youngest generation (newly coined as Zoomers) was spending on phones was, in fact, beneficial. FaceTime, Houseparty, Zoom gatherings—these all offered a lifeline for otherwise socially isolated kids. Yet even now, as in-person education and IRL hangouts resume, the JAMA report concludes, “screen use may remain persistently elevated.”
Today, the average age at which kids get a phone is 10, according to some industry groups. Common Sense Media says the average is 11, and one in five kids has a phone by the age of 8. Its new data, to be released later this year, shows a continued “aging downward,” as the group’s senior director of research, Michael Robb, put it. While it’s tricky to show the effects of the pandemic, he said, “you’ll see that slightly more 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds have smartphones relative to 2019.” (This is despite the fact that a pre-pandemic Pew study found that 73 percent of parents said they believe it’s acceptable for children to have their own phone only after age 12.)
Whatever the age at which a kid gets a phone, it still arms the kid with a device designed to addict. “Silicon Valley wants the same thing Vegas wants,” said Dr. Richard Freed, a psychologist and the author of “Wired Child.” “Time spent on device. Teen time spent.”
Freed works with families in lower-income Antioch, Calif., as well as in posh Palo Alto, Calif., and the divide is wide between those communities: “The difference is, tech parents haven’t been duped. They know the dangers. They know Apple and Zuckerberg and all the social media apps are after their kids—which is why their kids aren’t on them!”
On the other hand, the parents working two jobs and struggling to make ends meet “don’t have access to the inside scoop,” he said. “They see smartphones as a status symbol, something they think helps their kid, something they want to give their kid.” A lot of affluent parents don’t want to give their kid a phone. But just like their children, adults succumb to pressure—peer, family and societal—all too easily.
“I would’ve loved to have made it to eighth. We tried. We failed,” said Jeremiah Rosen, CEO of Sundae, a social media marketing firm in Manhattan. “My daughter would’ve killed us. It would’ve seriously ruined our relationship.” He first heard about Wait Until 8th through a friend of his wife. “She was really pushing it,” he said. “Like, ‘You guys have to do this, too.’” And for a while, they did hold out—even lasting through the first 18 months of the pandemic. Then, last September, the day before the beginning of school, they gave their sixth-grade daughter a phone—albeit scrubbed of social media. “That’s the hill I’ll die on,” said the father, who works in it.
Now, said Rosen, his daughter is constantly looking at her phone. “I’d rather she be looking out the window! There’s a real value in that.” He asked her recently: “Do you feel more fulfilled? Are you happier? Is your life better now that you have a phone?” She shrugged. Not really, she told him. But she uses it to arrange lunches in Union Square and walks around the Village with friends. She plays Sneaky Sasquatch. She listens to Bleachers. She has taken 700 photos. And her parents know her whereabouts; they are reachable, and vice versa. “As an only child, in New York City, I think it’s been a good social outlet,” said Rosen. “She has gained a new level of independence—well,” he added, “while becoming more dependent on her phone.”
The thing—the worst thing—about handing kids a mobile device is that it offers them “access to everything,” said Tiffany Shlain, author of “24/6: Giving Up Screens One Day a Week to Get More Time, Creativity, and Connection.” “Do we really want them to have access to…everything?”
Shlain serves on the advisory board of The Digital Wellness Lab at Harvard’s Boston Children’s Hospital and has been a proponent of Wait Until 8th since the start. Her older daughter, now at Yale University, didn’t get a phone until midway through her freshman year of high school. “I think we were the last one at Tam High,” Shlain said, laughing. She wondered if maybe they’d waited a tad too long, given that Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, Calif., uses apps in its curriculum.
As for her younger daughter—half the parents in her class took the pledge back in fourth grade. But come Covid-19, everybody caved, Shlain included. The pandemic scuttled everything, she said. “We never even used to allow iPads in the bedroom! And then suddenly bedrooms became classrooms.” On one day of home-schooling, it hit her: “The iPad is just a big phone. We’re so adamant about not getting her a phone, but she’s already got this iPad.”
Shlain and her husband, Ken Goldberg, a robotics professor at University of California, Berkeley, really wrestled with it. “I was like, what am I doing? I spent so much mental energy thinking about it, I wanted to scream.” They had a big discussion, drew up a contract, and eventually gave their seventh-grader a super-stripped-down iPhone—text, camera and calling only, barely more bells and whistles than in the Gabb phone she had once had but never used. “It just wasn’t the cool phone,” explained Shlain. “You want to think what’s ‘cool’ doesn’t matter, but it’s middle school. It does.” (One San Francisco parent told me about a boy so mortified by his flip phone that he’d walk away and hide whenever he had to send a text.)
The phone, some say, is just a conduit to the real culprit. “Social media magnifies age-old teenage problems,” said Dr. Roni Cohen-Sandler, author of the new book “Anything but My Phone, Mom!” “Before smartphones, kids would hear about a party they weren’t invited to on a Monday; now that party is posted in real time, so they can watch it endlessly and make themselves miserable.”
In some ways everything has changed, said Cohen-Sandler, and in others “nothing has changed.” Wait Until 8th’s Shannon agreed. “Every day all day, these platforms are just showing kids every BFF they don’t have, every group they’re not a part of, every sleepover they’re not invited to,” she said. It’s ironic: “Kids say they feel so left out by not having a phone—they don’t realize they feel just as left out having one.”
During the home-schooling phase of the pandemic, parents were in survival mode. Now it’s time to recalibrate, many say. Or as Dr. Jean Twenge argued in her 2021 New York Times op-ed, “This Is Our Chance to Pull Teenagers Out of the Smartphone Trap,” it’s time to rethink and reduce the amount—and kind—of time kids spend on phones.
After a two-year pause, groups like ScreenSense and Wait Until 8th are rebooting—taking surveys, switching gears, admitting a sense of defeat. They’re still calling for parents to delay giving kids phones, if they can. But if they can’t fend off their kids’ phone usage, the goal is to at least cordon off the most attention-sucking, confidence-stealing applications. Shannon and Wait Until 8th suggest not allowing any social media until kids reach 16.
There is the fear that the idea of Wait Until 8th is too puritanical—a digital version of 1990s virginity pledge craze. Maybe, some suspect, it’s not all that effective. As Cohen-Sandler says, every child is different. There is no magic age or grade when someone should suddenly be able to access everything. That includes eighth grade. As one friend of mine said about her 15-year-old twins: “We waited till eighth—and they’re still fucking addicted.
A lifetime ago, back in 2017 B.C. (Before Covid), my husband and I declared to ourselves (as opposed to signing a pledge) that we would not give our daughter, then 8 years old, an iPhone until eighth grade. So far we’ve stuck to that (although we did gift our kids a landline—a once-cool 1980s ombre phone, which my parents would never let me have, in my bedroom or otherwise).
Still, I know the end is nigh. As much as I hate having other people’s kids in my car’s back seat, necks curved downward, texting, scrolling and watching instead of chatting (especially after I’ve cheerily said, “No phones in the car, please!”), I also hate wondering: Am I sabotaging my daughter’s social life by barring her from an online one?
Though I’d like to parent like it’s 1994 and tell my kids to meet me at the Orange Julius at 5 p.m. or call me collect from a payphone if they need me, I realize that’s not realistic. So we will probably opt for Plan B: We will start slow, giving her a Wi-Fi–free “on-ramp,” as Cohen-Sandler said: “When your kid gets his driver’s license, you don’t just send him out on the highway with five friends in the car!”
Maybe if we sign other types of pacts and contracts. If we establish trust and communication. If we ban phones from the classroom and the bedroom, from carpools and dinner tables, while walking or talking, certainly while crossing the street. Maybe if our daughter can remain confident and capable of conversing and forming real-life relationships. Then maybe…giving her a phone would actually be more helpful than harmful? After all, devoid of Instagram and TikTok and the Wi-Fi–fueled freedom to forever scroll, maybe a phone is just a…phone, almost as innocuous as the ombre ’80s landline.
“Pick me up in Dolores Park at 5 p.m.!” my 13-year-old daughter emailed me the other day from her laptop at school. “At the park?” I wrote back in a panic. Where in the park? At 5 p.m.? On a Friday? I’ll never find parking! I’ll never find her! But it was too late. She was offline and unreachable.
So I did what any mother of one of the few remaining phoneless seventh graders in San Francisco would do. I texted her friend.