In late 2017, I sat with 50 other parents listening intently to an Internet Safety Specialist tell us everything that is wrong and dangerous about kids online. She had suggestions but warned, “porn can get around any filter.” And it had. At a recent visit to a local private school, a friend’s son had witnessed porn pop right up on the smartboard. My inbox had been inundated with articles about the dangers of smartphones on mental health, including the widely-shared article by Jean Twenge about the possibility of “...Smartphones destroy(ing) a generation.” So much doom and gloom, but not much action. What were we doing?
I talked the issue over with friends. It was an issue we had been discussing for years. Why so much anxiety at younger and younger ages? How do we protect our kids from the potential dangers of too much smartphone use, too much gaming, too much social media scrolling, too much time online? How do raise them to be strong, capable teenagers and adults in a screen-saturated world?
The solution, we decided, was an online platform that could encourage parents to delay giving a smartphone to their child until at least 8th grade. The movement would be similar to Wait Until 8th but completely transparent with an online list of parents who chose to delay. We would also focus on educating parents, and connecting them with professionals who are studying this phenomenon and had real suggestions. The hope was that this would alleviate some of the social pressure to have a phone, while also giving all parents in our community an avenue through which to access much needed information and strategies.
After a very successful launch, parents outside Concord reached out wanting to launch similar movements in their own communities. In my home, my kids were entering their middle school years and, although I had made the decision to delay smartphones, most of their friends’ parents had not. It didn’t take long to realize that healthy technology use goes beyond smartphones in middle school and that uniting communities outside Concord to inspire widespread change was necessary.
In January, I launched Turning Life On to further address the challenges parents across the country are facing as we navigate this digital age. Technology is not going anywhere but as a society, we need to do better, in our families and in our communities. We need to figure out a way to manage technology so it doesn’t manage us. We need to be informed of the studies and how screens are impacting our children, our relationships and our health. We need to respect and support each other as we navigate this challenging time.
Through my work with Turning Life On, it’s become clear that screens interfere with healthy child development in three distinct ways: parental distraction, unhealthy physical, mental and social side effects, and lost time. When parents are distracted by their own devices, they neglect the opportunities to bond with their children and to build loving, trusting relationships. There are reports connecting too much screen time with ill-being and concerns over the increased incidences of non-fatal self-harm and suicide. Too much screen time is impacting cognition, eye health and sleep. And preschool teachers tell us kids are coming to school knowing how to read but lacking basic social skills, like sharing and eye contact. When kids spend 1, 3, 6 hours a day on screens, they are missing out on other, healthier activities like free play, time in nature and interaction with peers.
There are simple changes we can make today to better manage screens in our families. As a parent, schedule set times when you will check your emails and texts. Then turn your phone to silent and connect with your family. All families should have a Family Media Plan that outlines expectations and rules based on family values. Families can also implement screen-free times and zone, like before bed, in the car and at the dinner table. Don’t be afraid to establish household rules for visitors, including: “People Come First.” Creating a “cell motel” for phones during get togethers and parties is absolutely reasonable. Encourage mindful use of technology and avoid responding to every beep, ding and ping. Set aside plenty of time to engage in non-screen activities.
Technology has connected us in ways we couldn’t connect before. At the same time, we feel more alone than ever. It’s clear that parenting in the digital age is really hard! Turning Life On gives parents a platform to come together in a supportive environment. A place to share strategies and encourage each other. A way to stay informed and feel empowered to make the right choices for our families and our community. It’s time to Turn Life On by Keeping Tech In Check.
To learn more or to launch a community in your area, visit turninglifeon.org.