Smartphones: how early is too early?

Earlier this fall, a group of Lower School (LS) parents introduced the national “Wait Until 8th” pledge to the LS campus (see ‘LS families pledge to postpone smartphone use’ page 4). Parents who take the pledge, which becomes active after 10 families from a school have signed on, promise not to give their children smartphones—that is, phones with Internet access and applications—until they’ve reached eighth grade. In the past, the school and Student Council have debated when and where students can use their cellphones during the academic day, but the pledge is the first attempt by community members to delay smartphone use entirely.

In researching the article that appears in this issue, The Vanguard’s editorial board found itself divided on the matter of whether parents should postpone giving their children smartphones. The following split editorial represents our differing views.


Waiting is wise

Middle School (MS) and LS students need the Wait Until 8th pledge as much as they think they need smartphones—a lot. In an age when children use smartphones at increasingly early points in their development, this pledge is key in mitigating the harm technology can bring upon young minds.

To start, The Atlantic’s article from last September, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” reports that eighth graders who spend six to nine hours a week on social media are 47 percent more likely to say they are unhappy than those who use social media less frequently. Furthermore, a study from the Clinical Psychological Science Journal mentioned in Time Magazine’s article from October 10, “We Need to Talk About Kids and Smartphones,” reveals that since 2010, teens who spent a lot of time on social media were more likely to report mental health issues than those who participated in fewer on-screen activities.

In the same Time article, the chair of the neurology department at University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School, Frances Jensen, said that because of their underdeveloped impulse control and sense of empathy, adolescents are more likely to click on inappropriate content and engage in potentially harmful online interactions with other users. Though students could access the same data on computers, of course, the information is more easily accessible on smartphones. Jensen also stated that middle school students need to avoid social media distractions to strengthen their prefrontal cortex (a part of the brain that is in charge of decision-making and interpreting human emotion), which doesn’t develop until people are in their mid-20s.

After Devorah Heitner—the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World—spoke with seventh graders of mixed genders about their social media use, she wrote in a  New York Times article on January 5, “Rules for Social Media, Created By Kids,” that While the teens said they liked having Instagram and Snapchat accounts, they also said they thought social media led to feelings of exclusion upon their noticing images or videos of parties they weren’t invited to.

We also know that smartphones often lead to poor study habits and distracted learning. The habits students develop from having a smartphone constantly on hand can decrease their focus on school work and can negatively influence cognitive ability. Since younger brains are more prone to developing harmful habits, the earlier students get their first smartphone, the greater the likelihood that these harmful study habits will persist. A recent study at the University of Texas discovered that simply having a smartphone in one’s vicinity decreased one’s cognitive ability with respect to concentrating on tasks and remembering information!

Smartphone ownership also makes economic disparities more visible for students in the middle and lower grades. Some families cannot afford to buy their children an iPhone or Android, both of which are much more expensive than a flip phone. As a result, students who do not have a smartphone—and are surrounded by others who do—can feel self-conscious or alienated. The pledge would change the notion that students who don’t have smartphones are of a lower socioeconomic status, thus helping diminish any class-based divide among peers.

If these aren’t reason enough to delay smartphone possession, what about the fact that the instantaneous, time-consuming, and sometimes mindless nature of smartphones can cause users to spend less time with friends? Cultivating healthy friendships requires energy and intentionality in a way that smartphones don’t.

Overall, the social, developmental, and academic implications of smartphone use among younger children highlight how the Wait Until 8th pledge could protect middle school students in some of their most formative years.


To start is smart

Picking a year when every student should start using a smartphone is pointless since children mature at different rates, and one plan will not fit every family.

Implementing the Wait Until 8th pledge will breed division between students who have smartphones and those who do not. The handful of students denied smartphones will feel isolated when they see their peers group-texting or posting on social media. Consequently, the pledge will only make students want smartphones more.

The pledge could also create a divide between the seventh and eighth grade. With only two grades comprising the MS, the campus has potential to become a tight-knit community that forms lasting connections. Pushing this petition onto only the seventh grade can interfere with the friendships between seventh and eighth graders and negatively impact community bonding as a whole.

It’s possible that when students first receive smartphones, they will overuse them, but in doing so, they will also encounter the need to practice critical time management skills at a younger age. Wouldn’t it be better for students to learn how to balance their time when grades aren’t as important, instead of in high school, when marks may impact the college process? Trusting tweens with smartphones teaches them valuable skills like responsibility, self-control, and time management early on.

Parents may believe they are protecting their children from cyberbullying by prohibiting smartphone use, but sheltering students from cyberbullying until eighth grade is less effective than addressing it head-on. This is especially important because this issue is becoming more prevalent, since bullying is most prominent in middle school, according to stopbullying.gov. Without a taste of reality, students will not learn the proper way to navigate social media. Showing children proper smartphone use is more effective than temporarily restricting device access.

Regardless, if the true problem is cyberbullying, why ban only smartphones? Smartphones aren’t the only avenue for abuse. Social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook all have digital counterparts on laptops or tablets. Should we ban those as well and make the children completely technologically illiterate?

Although social media can be seen as negative, our elders underestimate its benefits. Social media is a great outlet for students to find and form communities. For example, there are many religious, LGBTQ+, and fandom platforms that unite and lend support to people from different backgrounds. Additionally, social media can also be a fun way to stay connected to friends and family who live far away.

The benefits of technology in the classroom in the form of apps and libraries on smartphones are also too good to ignore. Smartphones and social media don’t just allow kids to connect to the world around them; they also help them bridge their lives in school and at home.

Young children will have to become technologically savvy to enjoy future success in any field, so why Wait Until 8th to give them the tools to do so?

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