Community Pledge Discussion: Wait Until Grade 8 For Smartphones

Welcome to 2024! I hope everyone had a relaxing Winter Break.

I am excited to share with you a joint effort with the Parent Association to improve the health and well-being of our community. It is a voluntary pledge to wait to give your child a smartphone until Eighth Grade. During Back-to-School Nights this year, particularly in the Lower and Middle School audiences, I tried to impress upon parents the grave concerns I have about the role of smartphones and the impact of social media on our younger students. A majority of our significant disciplinary issues are related to inappropriate use of social media and technology.

Typically, our students are just amazing in terms of their character and how they treat one another. But social media and texting can give the illusion of anonymity and create opportunities for students to make major mistakes that have real-world consequences. I am concerned about the impact of social media and online behavior on our learning community, as well as how such use can affect the development of young brains. We know young people will make mistakes, but putting smartphones in the hands of young children is, in my experience, courting disaster. 

After the Back-to-School Night sessions, a group of parents came to the school administration with a thoughtful proposal for a voluntary pledge by parents to delay providing their child with a smartphone until Eighth Grade. I talk to parents all the time who are deeply conflicted about when to get their child a smartphone. They worry about their child being isolated socially. Others have legitimate concerns about safety and the need to be able to contact their child. We have some students who have medical needs that require them to have a smartphone. I would underscore that this proposed pledge is completely voluntary and not intended to judge someone’s parenting decisions. It is intended to empower parents—particularly those in the Lower School and early Middle School years—to think of different alternatives or to just wait.

Kids are very effective at playing parents off of one another. All parents have heard the line, “But Dad, ALL of my friends have a smartphone!” Knowing just how many parents have given their child a smartphone can be helpful. Right now, 44% of Sixth Graders have smartphones, and that number goes up to 98% by Eighth Grade. With this ownership come more opportunities for students to experience unkindness and be exposed to content that is not appropriate.

The parents we have been working with are helping to create some shared norms and better understand how to help their children navigate this world. In the Lower School, smartphones tend to lead to exclusionary behavior and some unkind text chains. In the Middle School, there is a lot of social media use—particularly Tik Tok, YouTube, Instagram, and texting apps.

On January 16, at 5:30 p.m., the Meta whistleblower Frances Haugen is doing an evening Zoom SPEAK presentation for CA parents. We are following up on Tuesday, January 17, 1-2 p.m., with a roundtable discussion for parents (also on Zoom) to process the lessons from her talk. Her revelations about the negative mental health of apps like Instagram are powerful. But we also know that YouTube, which many parents think of as harmless, has a lot of dangers.

We are NOT proposing taking away phones from Middle Schoolers; we are merely proposing to approach this as a community because it is important for parents to educate themselves and their children about the dangers and appropriate use of social media apps.

In our own survey of CA high school students, it is clear that they are aware of the challenges of smartphones. Many reported wanting to take steps to cut down on time spent on their phone. Others noted posting something they later regretted, and many have reported seeing postings that were unkind. These are really concerning, but it is interesting to note how self-aware our older students are of the problems related to social media. I encourage you to read this incredible New York Times article that describes how a small chat group’s private page, which included racist and sexist images and humor, divided and tore apart a high school in California. The school did not handle the issue very well; but, to be fair, these are new and difficult issues to confront. The author of this article, Dashka Slater, notes how young people are looking for guidance on how to navigate this online world. As you read the article, your heart will just break for all the students involved.

The goal of this effort is to help keep our kids safe and help them form healthy relationships. I have not always been a fan of such pledges, but the goal here is to help parents understand what decisions other parents are making. As educators, and more importantly as a community, we should continuously learn and better our understanding of the issues our children face. We can learn from one another as we continue to help our children navigate this world. 

Here are some examples and rationales of what might be included in the proposed pledge: 

  • Help parents establish clear guidelines and expectations for technology use, e.g., appropriate content, screen time, etc.
  • Provide educational resources: Many organizations offer educational programs aimed at teaching children and parents about online safety. Common Sense Media, for example, provides resources and tips for parents on navigating the digital world with their children.
  • Use parental controls: Parental control features are available on many devices and platforms. These tools allow you to manage, monitor, and/or restrict your child’s access to certain content and apps.
  • Open communication: Foster an open and ongoing dialog about technology. Encourage your child to come to you with questions or concerns about their online experiences, and be receptive to discussing potential issues without judgment.
  • Explore digital literacy programs: CA offers digital literacy programs that teach children how to navigate the online world safely. These programs cover topics such as identifying and avoiding cyberbullying, understanding digital footprints, and recognizing potential online dangers. 

As a community, we want to share resources, work together, and support one another as we make these challenging decisions. We also want to respect every family’s differing needs and technology decisions and to support one another without judgment.

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me directly, or you can discuss this with the head of our Parent Association, Vanessa Homuth.