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Sign Right Here: The Parents Pledging to Keep Kids Phone-Free

Kiley DeMarco recently attended Safety Night at her children’s public elementary school on Long Island. As she walked around different booths learning about how to protect her children from accidentally taking a cannabis gummy, about a local violence-prevention program, about how police officers would respond to an emergency on campus, one station caught her eye: A parent was asking other parents to take a pledge not to give their children smartphones until the end of eighth grade.

Ms. DeMarco has two children, one in kindergarten and one in first grade. But like many parents, she has already read books and research arguing that smartphones, and the social media apps on them, drastically increase anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts in teenagers.

Asking parents in the same school to commit to holding back phones until a certain age made sense to her. “It means there is no gray area,” she said. “There is a clear grade level when they get the phone.”

The idea of acting collectively, in lock step with other parents, made her feel more confident that she could keep her commitment. “It totally takes the pressure off of us as parents,” she said. “Down the road, when my kids start begging for phones, we can say we signed this pledge for our community and we are sticking to it.”

In schools and communities across the country, parents are signing documents pledging not to give their children smartphones until after middle school. The idea, organizers say, is that if parents take action together, their children are less likely to feel isolated because they aren’t the only ones without TikTok in their pockets.

Considering the prevalence of smartphone use among young people, it’s a bold step: Research from Common Sense, a nonprofit organization that provides technology reviews for families, shows that half of children in the United States own cellphones by age 11 — roughly fifth or sixth grade.

According to Zach Rausch, an associate research scientist at New York University who studies child and adolescent mental health, case-by-case decisions not to have a smartphone or social media can be “risky” for individual children, socially speaking.

“They are saying, ‘I might be banished from all my friends and my social network,’ and it’s a pretty big cost to make that choice,” he said. “But if the parents collectively work together to set the boundary, it will reduce a lot of conflict. It won’t be, ‘My friend has this, but I don’t.’”

Many groups of parents are drawing on a playbook created by Wait Until 8th, an organization that helps parents collect no-phone pledges from their children’s classes at school. Fifty-four pledges in 16 states were created in April alone, each of which had at least 10 families signed up, said Brooke Shannon, the initiative’s founder and executive director.

“I think we’re getting a flood of pledges now because the ‘Anxious Generation’ book came out, and it’s getting a lot of traction,” Ms. Shannon said, referring to a new book by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt that argues the rise of smartphones has led to an increase in mental illness. “There are also hearings with the Senate judicial committee and the rules coming out of Florida.” (In March, Florida enacted a bill banning social media accounts for children under 14.)

Indeed, some parents are organizing these pledges because they believe their local governments or schools are not taking enough action.

Kim Washington, 47, an occupational therapist in Boise, Idaho, has a third grader and a fifth grader who both have classmates with smartphones. Her own children do not, and she plans to keep it that way until they are in high school.

Ms. Washington has read research about the impact of phone use on children, and knows that teenagers in her community have struggled with mental illness, including four students who died by suicide in their local school district. “After that,” she recalled, “five or six parents got together and said: ‘What do we need to do? Our kids are struggling.’”

The parents first appealed to the school board to ban smartphones during the school day. The board said that it would look into the matter, but that it might take some time, Ms. Washington said. “If the school district had implemented a policy, I probably would not have to be as forceful and active doing something on my own because our kids would have much less screen time during the day.”

Instead, she and her peers felt compelled to “do something from the bottom up until the top down does something,” as she put it.

So this spring, they started approaching parents to sign a Wait Until 8th pledge. Ms. Washington has now secured pledges in three grades, including both of her children’s classes. “I’m just happy my son will have some friends who don’t have smartphones in school next year,” Ms. Washington said.

Dan Hollar, a spokesman for the Boise School District, said in April that the district was conducting an audit of cellphone use in classrooms and working with a parent group “to address their concerns with student cellphone use at school.”

“As a school district, we certainly support and see the value in parents making informed choices regarding their children’s own technology use,” he said in the statement.

In Summit, N.J., a group of five parents accumulated 200 commitments in less than two weeks; they now have over 350, they said, spread across five elementary schools and two kindergarten primary centers.

“It was old-school word of mouth,” said Traci Kleinman, 42, an organizer of the Summit pledge who is getting her M.B.A. and has children in third grade, first grade and preschool. “It was text, email, word of mouth, trying to get as much buzz as possible around town.”

Ms. Kleinman also knows that across-the-board participation is unlikely. “It’s such a personal decision for families,” she said. “The goal is to change the status quo so that by the time our kids get to fifth or sixth grade in one, two years down the road, there won’t be a majority of kids with smartphones. The majority of parents are saying no.”

“No school has gotten 100 percent,” said Ms. Shannon, the founder of Wait Until 8th. “We have seen some schools out there that are 85, 90 percent, but that isn’t the point. The key to remember is that as long as your kid has seven or eight or nine families waiting with them, they don’t feel alone or strange or weird.”

Much of the resistance comes from parents who feel the need to be in touch with their children all day. “Parents say, ‘I need to get in touch with my child because the school isn’t safe anymore, and there are all these school shootings,’” Ms. Shannon said. To address those concerns, the organization includes a list of devices on its website that allow parents to text their children but don’t allow access to social media. If smartphones are off the table, the thinking goes, dumber devices may be the solution.

Some parents are more skeptical that these initiatives can work.

Lisa Filiberti, 44, who lives in Summit, supports the pledge in theory. She said she planned to sign it and promised not to give her 9- and 5-year-old children phones until high school.

The problem is, she already has a 13-year-old daughter in seventh grade who has an iPhone. She worries that will make things feel unfair for her younger children, though she has tried to explain to them that there is research now that didn’t exist when their older sister was given a phone. But she also knows from experience how hard it will be for parents to actually uphold the pledge when their children reach their preteen years.

“When I first told my husband about the pledge, he laughed,” she said. “He was like: ‘Oh yeah? These parents of 5-year-olds think they are going to do this?’”

“I feel hope for this change, I really do,” she added. “I am just concerned that it is going to take so many people to really commit for this to work, and that is a very tough thing to do.”

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