Can 8th graders really handle smartphones?

boys on phones
Public Domain Flickr

Thirteen still seems awfully young to have access to the world in one's pocket.

When is the right age to give a child a smartphone? The answer is subjective, of course, depending on a child’s maturity level and circumstances; but there is a growing consensus that waiting at least until eighth grade is a good idea. A pledge called ‘Wait Until 8th’ has been circulating around the United States, with more than 2,000 parents with kids in 500 schools signing it since this past spring.

The group that created the pledge, based in Austin, Texas, says the pledge’s popularity comes from the fact that moms and dads can “rally together” and “look to other smartphone-free peers throughout elementary school.”

Evidence against smartphone use is mounting, with problems such as sleep deprivation, cyber-bullying, distraction from homework, social dysfunction, and lack of physical activity linked to its use. Plus, there’s the disturbing reminder that many Silicon Valley executives, Steve Jobs included, have opted not to allow their kids access to smartphones until later in high school. (It’s almost like they know something the rest of the world does not…)

But is eighth grade late enough, I wonder? To me, even that seems too young for a smartphone. While my children have not yet reached that age, and I imagine the peer pressure would be significant at that point, 13- and 14-year-olds still strike me as being too immature to handle the allure of a pocket-sized computer in their hands at all times.

Smartphones, to my eyes, are a tool and a privilege. They are not a right. If the purpose of a cell phone is to provide a connection to parents and friends, then a simple flip phone or other basic model can do the job for a fraction of the price – which is, of course, another important part of this debate.

Why should parents incur the cost of supporting a child’s social media and YouTube addiction? No, thanks! There will not even be a conversation about smartphones in my household until my kids are capable of paying their bills, monthly fees and all, on their own. My money is better spent saving for their education and buying groceries; if there’s extra, I’d rather take them on a trip.

To hand a 13-year-old a smartphone is to hand them a device that’s more likely to bring drama and disconnection into their lives than any measurable benefit. The sexting, the porn, the bullying, the absolute narcissism of the online world inhabited by teenagers is not a can of worms I want to open with my kids – at least, not until they choose to pay the cost of entry.

I do not think that allowing a smartphone earlier in life is a way to “teach responsibility” in preparation for the days when they have limitless access; I see it as just handing over the drug sooner than ever – because, honestly, don’t we adults even have trouble controlling it? I fight the urge to waste time on Facebook and Instagram on the best of days, and I just got my first smartphone four years ago!

What’s more important than teaching a kid how to use a smartphone smartly? Teach them how to live without one. That is the rarest and most treasured skill to have these days, and the one that will make them stand out in a crowd – a young person who is capable of confident conversation, of making eye contact and observations of the world around them because they aren’t glued to a screen, of enjoying themselves without needing to share evidence of every experience online.

Smartphone-free living is kind of like childhood magic these days. The years for Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, and the tooth fairy are so short; why rush the inevitable? I’ll hold out as long as I possibly can for their sake.

Tags: iPhone | Kids | Technology

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK

treehugger slideshows