More times than she can count, Krista Boan has sat behind the wheel, tapping on her phone, while waiting to pick up her children at Stilwell Elementary.
Boan is a mom of four who has come to think that youngsters should not be given smartphones before they reach eighth grade.
Boan thought she might be alone, until she discovered a new national campaign called “Wait Until 8th.” She emailed some parents at Stilwell asking them to join, and 40 parents signed up.
Then it struck her that she needed to set down her own phone. Instead of staying in her car at school, she got out and stood beneath an oak tree to chat with people face to face.
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“In reviewing my own life, I realized I’d come to depend too much on my phone and social media to make my connections,” she said.
Now, a Facebook site that Boan launched in September, “Wait a Bit Kansas City,” is stoking a movement: 1,000 area households and counting, all in search of support and advice about when children are ready to own smartphones.
“There is a paradox of having this awesome Facebook group hoping to help get their families off social media,” said Boan, 38. “I’m glad these online sites are here.”
But should they be easily accessed by children who haven’t hit their teens?
Since it launched in March, the zeal of “Wait Until 8th” has spread from its Texas origins to draw pledges from parents in more than a dozen Kansas City area school districts and Catholic parishes.
The program seeks at least 10 families from a child’s grade to sign pledges to keep smartphones out of young hands until the user enters eighth grade. It sends an email to the group so signees can support one another.
Having peers is key. Without enough parents making the pledge, many parents feel powerless when their child insists that all other kids have phones: Why should I be left out?
Boan feels pushback from parents, too.
“This technology is so much a part of kids’ identity, some are saying if you don’t give them (a smartphone), their social potential will be limited,” she said. “I interpret that to mean we don’t have a choice.
“But we’ve forgotten. Yes, we do have a choice.”
Just look to the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. He prohibited his kids from using an iPad at home.
And former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, knowing the risks of too much screen time on developing minds, didn’t allow his children to own mobile devices until they turned 14.
‘Too much dopamine’
At the Amend Neurocounseling clinic in Overland Park, Kansas, Susan Dunaway can recognize the problem when analyzing brain activity.
“There’s a big correlation between the amount of time kids spend on screens and brain-wave patterns,” said Dunaway, who has joined Boan’s “Wait a Bit Kansas City” group.
A child being tested need not be operating a phone for Dunaway to see the lingering effects of screen time in a brain scan. Years of online overstimulation “acts on the brain the way cocaine acts on the brain,” she said.
“Too much dopamine is released,” she said. “Those pleasure centers should be going off once in a while. With screen time, they’re going off constantly.”
Developing brains are most vulnerable, Dunaway said, and smartphones might be producing a generation prone to inattention, restlessness and bursts of anger when desires aren’t quickly met.
She said the effects tend to be less pronounced in children handed their first cellphones at “12-ish” or older.
The average age for kids getting their own phones is 10.3 years, about fifth grade, according to Kansas City-based cellular provider Sprint.
For “Wait Until 8th” signees, just a year of staving off online bullies or sexters is a relief. Advocates also want more children to experience a bygone upbringing of outdoor play, creative activities and interaction with family and friends.
Recently, nearly four dozen supporters — all moms — showed up for coffee at the Country Club of Leawood to discuss their options.
The parent of two grade-schoolers said she sensed “the pendulum swinging in the other direction” in terms of society wanting to bring the latest cellular technology to classrooms. “Now might be the time we can press schools” to ease up, she said.
Others suggested that parents pressure manufacturers to come up with smartphone designs offering some popular features but no access to social-media platforms.
Bren Tally, a family therapist who was working out at the country club, dropped by to tell organizers: “You guys, go for it! I’d rather not see the messes in kids that I’m seeing today.”
It all left Boan, who led the meeting, feeling at the center of a groundswell.
“If we do this right,” she told the group, “it will be contagious.”
Kids have their say
Some people argue that schools make a phone-free childhood impossible.
When the Shawnee Mission district began providing iPads or other mobile devices to every pupil, grade-school parent Dunaway was among a vocal cadre of objectors.
“A lot of teachers feel they’ll get fired if they don’t use the technology,” she said.
By middle school, parents might be urged to download phone apps that allow students to stay current with homework assignments and academic progress.
“So many (educators) have said that once devices enter the classroom, from iPhones to iPads, conversations come to a screeching halt,” said one contributor to the local group’s Facebook site.
Every kid reacts differently to having that first phone. For uneasy parents, Sprint’s “Kid’s First Phone” website offers a quiz that the company says will “determine an individual child’s readiness.”
As for kids’ views, a quick survey of patrons at the Snack Shack in Kansas City, Kan., revealed some surprises. The shack is a new after-school hangout created by high schoolers.
“Maybe four years old,” said Annahy Tarin, 11, citing safety for kids who get lost or abducted.
“Ten,” said Alex Romines, also 11.
(Alex was 10 when he got his phone. But he emphasizes social-media caution and suggests that his peers who tend to lose things should wait.)
Alexis Arroya, 13, showed off the app on her phone that allows her family to know her whereabouts.
And this from Oksana Gray, 17: “With my kids, I’m going to wait until they can pay for it. That’s what was expected of me.”
Oksana got her first smartphone at 16.