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Art by Clark Miller.
Art by Clark Miller.

The iPhone Abstinence Movement Has Failed. Is There a Better Way to Keep Kids Off Smartphones?


The Wait Until 8th pledge asked parents to hold off on giving kids smartphones until middle school. Then came the pandemic—and parents everywhere caved. Now what?

March 25, 2022 11:38 AM PDT

Brooke Shannon, a mother of three in Austin, Tex., was traumatized by what she witnessed one day in 2017 while driving by her local middle school. She saw dozens of tweens standing around with their heads down, phones up, glazed eyes staring into their devices: alone together. “I went home and emailed 20 moms,” Shannon said, posing a heretical question: What if we kept phones away from kids until eighth grade? What if we all simply…waited?

She called her idea “Wait Until 8th.” It was hatched out of desperation a decade after the birth of the iPhone. A few months later, the world’s then-richest man Bill Gates admitted that he and then-wife Melinda had kept smartphones from their kids until they were 14. Then The Atlantic published Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?”—a generation the article’s author dubbed “iGen.”

What had started as a simple idea within one Texas community “spread like wildfire,” recalled Shannon—and became a movement. Run entirely by volunteers, Wait Until 8th garnered media attention from outlets including NPR and the Today show. At its peak it collected tens of thousands of online signatures from parents in all 50 states, who promised to hold off on giving iPhones to their children—to “let kids be kids a little longer,” or at least until their frontal lobes further developed.

Dana Tuttle, a physician and mother in Marin County, Calif., remembered hearing about Wait Until 8th and weighing whether to commit her child, then eight, to the pledge. “It was such a depressing, inevitable feeling as a parent,” said Tuttle, who often found herself eating breakfast, looking out the window, “and watching all these 10-, 11-, 12- year-olds walking to school with their big backpacks, their arms extended, staring into their phones.”

“I didn’t know when exactly was the right time [to introduce phones],” said Tuttle. “I just knew waiting sounded good.” So she banded together with Dabney Ingram, a local mom with a doctorate in education research, and in 2018 they launched ScreenSense—“to help families and their communities teach healthy tech use to children.”

Suddenly, whatever sort of phone-rollout strategy parents adopted, there were options. The efforts signalled a growing awareness that maybe this smartphone thing wasn’t such a smart idea after all. It was a coast-to-coast wakeup call, led in large part by moms—mothers against smartphones, the Mothers Against Drunk Driving of the 21st century.

The tech hubs of San Francisco and Austin didn’t suddenly turn into Amish country, but parents like Shannon and Tuttle started noticing a subtle change. Suddenly, not every fifth grader in Marin was getting a phone for graduation. Communities were having conversations. Schools were hosting speakers. Families were at least establishing rules, if not always following them. “We were making progress,” said Tuttle. “I felt heartened. There was a noticeable cultural shift.”

And then Covid-19 arrived.

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