The smartphone. It’s not just a way to get and receive phone calls. It’s a powerful way to stay on top of an online world. It’s also a gateway to that online world, and the apps available through its tiny screen can make that world more alluring — even addictive. In fact, adults know how hard it can be to turn their iPhone or Samsung Galaxy off and pay attention to the world around them.
If you are an elementary or middle school student, the pull of smartphones can be even harder to resist. And there are a growing number of studies suggesting smartphone use negatively affects children’s developing brains and emotional health, and calls from medical leaders, including Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who advocate for delaying children’s smartphone use even later.
In short, the evidence is piling up that it may not be smart to give children their own smartphones, at least until they are past their early teens.
But it’s difficult to hold out against a child’s desire when “everyone else in class has one” or when other parents admit they have buckled and given one to their son or daughter. Parents can feel like they are fighting the smartphone battle all alone.
That’s where Wait Until Eighth comes in.
Wilmette residents Katie Degen, Mark SooHoo and Annie SooHoo want to spread the word that parents can stand up to smartphone pressure when they join together by taking the pledge championed by Wait Until Eighth — that guardians will wait until their children are at least in eighth grade before giving them smartphones.
“It’s a very simple message,” Mark SooHoo said. “By making the pledge communal, it cuts that social isolation for parents and lets them know they’re not alone.”
Degen, the SooHoos and other local Wait Until Eighth volunteers will staff a booth during the Saturday, Sept. 9 Wilmette Block Party, and hope to spread word about the effort that way.
How tough is it to get phones out of the hands of children and young teens? Mark SooHoo recalled one particularly telling scene he watched recently.
“I saw three middle-schoolers riding their bikes, their faces in their phones while they were riding,” he said. “They didn’t have helmets on either, and I said ‘That’s so wrong on so many levels,’ but the fact they weren’t paying attention to what was around them, or even to each other, really stood out.”
The SooHoos’ children are 10, 8 and 4, so they are preparing for their future smartphone response. The eldest of Degen’s three children is in seventh grade, and she can attest to the smartphone dilemma.
“We gave him one when he was in fifth grade, and we saw a difference right away,” she said. “When we took it away for any reason, we would see our old kid again, the one who was engaged with the world. Then we’d give the phone back, and we’d see the difference again.”
For her, Wait Until Eighth was the right route to take.
The campaign began in 2017, when parents in Austin, Texas, responded to the challenge of resisting and delaying children’s smartphone use. They developed the pledge framework because they understood the tremendous social pressure parents face.
It relies on the concept of community to lighten that societal load: Parents take the pledge and register it online with Wait Until Eighth. The pledge remains anonymous until parents organize a group of at least 10 families in their child’s grade and school who also agree to take the pledge.
Once that happens, the pledging group learns who their group members are, which reinforces their confidence and helps them resist the gravity well of smartphones.
The effort can start with parents whose children are in elementary school, which allows them to make eschewing smartphones a normal and important conversation before their children hit their teenage years. In Wilmette, parents with children in second grade have taken the pledge, Mark SooHoo and Degen said.
Wait Until Eighth also offers resources for parents worried that their children won’t be able to contact them when necessary, or keep up with their friends. For instance, two-way smartwatches that allow basic calling, and non-smartphones, including flip phones, that let kids call and text, but don’t provide access to the internet.
Degen said her family replaced her son’s phone with a smartwatch, adding “It’s been a real game changer. He’s talking more with his friends, and it’s actually changed for the rest of the family. We all use our phones less, and interact more.”
Mark and Annie SooHoo decided to take the bull by the horns late last year. He said Annie SooHoo did “the lion’s share of work” in researching Wait Until Eighth and reaching out to other parents and friends, including Degen. They started spreading the word early this year. To date, 84 pledges have been signed across all six schools in Wilmette Elementary School District 39, Mark SooHoo said.
Parents who take the Wait Until Eighth pledge are encouraged to help other parents consider doing the same. Degen and Mark SooHoo consider the program’s ability to spark such conversations to be as valuable as pledging. Both are confident that Wilmette residents will prove to be attentive listeners.
“One of the things I love about Wilmette is that we’re one of the communities where residents want to become engaged,” Mark SooHoo said. “Our hope is to arm parents with information to make an informed, thoughtful decision about an important issue for their children. Every family’s situation is different, but ultimately we’re part of a community and banding together will help ease the pressure for parents and children alike.”
Conversations won’t work with everyone. Mark SooHoo theorized that a third of the parents who hear about it will join the Wait Until Eighth effort. Another third won’t, perhaps believing their children need the technology. The final third will have the conversation but won’t take the pledge, at least for now.
“We’re not moralizing,” he said. “It’s not a case of inclusion versus exclusion. We know we’re never going to get 100 percent inclusion. But if we can make it easier for parents to have the conversation — with each other, their kids, other parents — we’re still helping.”
Wait Until Eighth volunteers will operate a booth at the Sept. 9 Wilmette Block Party in downtown Wilmette.
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Kathy Routliffe reported in Chicago's near and North Shore suburbs (including Wilmette) for more than 35 years, covering municipal and education beats. Her work, including feature writing, has won local and national awards. She is a native of Nova Scotia, Canada.