If you’re like me, you read the occasional parenting book, reach out to friends to see what is going on with their children, and try your best to be as present as possible - while working and running a household. Sometimes you have that rare “winning” moment and often you make mistakes. But on this one occasion – I stepped up for my kids, neighborhood and my community. Feeling frustrated by the increase of thoughtless digital culture crashing into my town, I took a stand to make a difference for my family’s home by creating the Bedford Promise. We are a grass roots parent-volunteer organization spreading the word about ways to keep kids safe while they engage with technology. We are also connecting with school administrators to help educate them on the impacts of school policies around technology and the repercussions these policies have on home life.
Here’s how it began: pediatricians say that kids should not consume more than 2 hours of technology a day so my husband and I followed this recommendation. We purposely did not include iPads as part of our “gear” to make the annual 7-hour trip to visit relatives every year. We forced the kids to read, draw, nap, play games and listen to music when trapped in the car. We are an average family trying to do the best we can while managing activities, commitments, friendships and family. Two years ago I looked around my community as my girls were entering 3rd and 4th grade, and I saw how many older kids were completely sucked into their iPhones, spending every minute of their day connected. The phone was truly an appendage that they couldn’t part with.
I reached out to my friends (as I sometimes did) to see if they had began to think about what was soon coming our way and how they were preparing. With not many good responses and too many questions and concerns, I did what many people do and searched online for my issue. The only thing I found was a movement called Wait Until 8th, which was a great fit except, I couldn’t see who else in my community had signed on, unless we had a certain number of signatures in the same school and grade. It felt like a missed opportunity to me because I wanted a way to come together and talk about the tech issue in front of us. The one where our kids were participating in this digital, social experiment that families before us did not have to manage. It felt like a big onion, with so many layers that I didn’t know how to begin cutting through it. I reached out to PTO leadership because I figured with so many connections, they may have heard of helpful tips.
Voila! The PTO had heard of a movement developing in the neighboring town of Concord that was in the process of creating the Concord Promise. I reached out to one of the founders, Adrienne, who was inspired after a screening of Screenagers to do something locally to combat early access to personal data devices. The resulting Concord Promise had a mission similar to Wait Until 8th but with full transparency and an educational mission. Their mission is to unite, inform and empower local community members to adopt healthy tech practices both within their families and the broader community. They encourage Promise champions to spread the word, add members and hold regular meetups where members can talk tech. They have over 15 active communities and over 500 parent members.
I developed the Bedford Promise, modeling it after Adrienne’s movement, and after enlisting a few moms to help develop the message and mission specific to our town. I loved that people were able to make connections by seeing who has already signed up. It allowed me to know that I wasn’t alone in what seemed like a battle with technology and I appreciated that there was a format for sharing current information because it is ever evolving with new apps and games. Since Bedford is a small town, I did NOT want to alienate anyone for making a different choice than what worked for my family. I wanted to support the parents who decided to give their child their own data device before age 14 as much as I wanted parents to take our pledge to hold off providing devices until late middle school. Helping parents discover better technology boundaries for their children became a priority.
What was important to sustaining the Bedford Promise was building a community that regularly shared helpful articles about the positive and negative impacts of technology. What was truly exceptional was the face-to-face communication explaining what the pledge means and why it is important. The countless conversations highlighting responsible tech use and the responsibility of a child to manage their own device made a difference in gathering supporters.
What we’ve discovered is that there is a very short “sweet spot” between 4th and 5th grade to getting parents to either sign up for the pledge or make an informed choice. Before that, parents think their children are too young to worry about devices. But most parents will consider buying or giving their child a phone prior to middle school (which is often 6th grade). Once the decision is made, it’s rare for someone to “undo” this choice. So, it is important to host community chat events for parents to talk about their experiences and get school speakers to talk to parents and classes. The events that draw our biggest success in sign ups are Town Days where the Bedford Promise sets up a booth to engage with parents and explain the mission of our movement and cut through some of the many layers of this technological onion.
One of our biggest challenges now is succession planning. As our children get older, we age out of connections with the next age group. Our focus is to find ambassadors for younger grades and build a strong base for the future.
Our first year netted about 18% of the grade pledging to be part of the Bedford Promise. But one thing we’ve learned is that there are many more families in town who are deferring to give their child their own device despite not taking the official pledge. The educational aspect has helped create a space for kids to not rely on their devices for nearly every lifetime experience.