Every time one of his classmates gets a smartphone, Jhett Rogers thinks to himself: There goes another one.
“It kind of feels like I’ve lost a friend. Whenever I’m with them, they’re zoned out and always on their phone.”
But Rogers, a middle schooler in Salt Lake City, says he still can’t shake the desire to join the club. Six months ago, the only other holdout in his 30-strong group of friends got an iPhone.
“It kind of made me feel left out and jealous,” he says. “But later I don’t want one because I know what happens.”
He says kids in the hallways now bump into each other, with everyone staring down at their phones. Teachers have started giving up on his school’s no-phone policy, knowing students hide their devices up their hoodie sleeves and pull them out as soon as no one’s looking. At lunch hour, he says, everyone eats alone, scrolling TikTok while they chew.
At 13, Jhett is part of a small, but growing, minority group of holdouts. By age 12, seven out of ten American kids own a smartphone. They also spend about eight hours online a day, inhaling TikTok trends, toggling between texts, and turning their daily lives into Snapchat and Instagram content. Most will have seen pornography by age 12, with three in four teenage boys saying they watch adult content at least once a week.
Meanwhile, a growing body of research shows that smartphones are at least partly to blame for skyrocketing rates of teenage anxiety and depression. As author Jonathan Haidt, reporting on a recent worldwide study on smartphone use among nearly 28,000 youths, put it: “The younger the age of getting the first smartphone, the worse the mental health the young adult reports today.”
For years, the risks have been clear as day among Silicon Valley’s brightest minds, including Bill Gates and Google’s Sundar Pichai, who famously kept smartphones away from their own kids, and Steve Jobs, who limited his children’s screen time altogether. But it has taken the Covid-19 pandemic for ordinary Americans to come to the same conclusion: that their kids had become dependent on their phones, and their school work suffered as a result. This year, an increasing number of school districts—in Ohio, Maryland, Colorado, and other states—have banned the devices in class. And in July, the state of Florida will enforce a new phone fatwa, barring their use during instructional time at all public schools.
In 2018, Lance Black, a Utah father of six, became a founder and investor in Gabb Wireless—a company making internet-free smartphones. The devices, which start at $150, are aimed at kids 5 to 15 and loaded only with the essentials: features for texting, calling, and a GPS tracker for parents. (Call them dumbphones.)
“It has a touchscreen, and you can call and text, so kids aren’t embarrassed to pull it out,” Black tells me, adding that it runs on an Android-based operating system.
Since Gabb launched in 2019, Black said the company has raised about $42 million in funding. While he won’t reveal specific sales, he said every year has significantly outpaced the previous year, adding, “We have hundreds of thousands of customers across the United States.”
One customer is Jhett’s father W. Pratt Rogers, who bought a Gabb phone for his son last year.
Rogers said he hopes Jhett’s dumbphone will take him all the way through high school. While he admits it’s hard denying his son a privilege all his friends enjoy, and he admits the situation is “an arms race,” he says it’s imperative that parents resist putting the internet in their kids’ pockets for as long as possible.
“How you help them learn to be present, in a task or with a relationship, is one of the top challenges of our generation,” says Rogers, a 40-year-old mining professor at the University of Utah. “Part of that is going to be saying no.”
Brooke Shannon said no to phones years before it grew into a movement.
In 2017, she was driving past a middle school in her neighborhood when she saw a sea of kids, all staring into their palms.
“It just made me sad,” she told me. “This was going to be life for my kids—either they’re going to be one of the only kids with their heads up, or they’re going to have a phone in their hands staring down with the rest of these kids.”
That inspired her to launch the nonprofit Wait Until 8th, in which parents pledge to keep smartphones away from their kids until eighth grade, or 13 to 14 years old—the longest she felt like she could get parents to hold off in a community that already had teched-up first- and second-graders. Shannon designed the pledge to go “active” once ten parents in a single grade sign on.
“Then you can share with your kid like, ‘Yes, you’re waiting, but so are Johnny and Sam and Alison, or whoever it is,’ ” says Shannon, a 41-year-old raising three daughters in Austin. “There’s strength in linking arms with other parents.”
But she admits she faced objections when she first started collecting signatures at her children’s school six years ago.
“Some people were like, ‘Oh no, that’s not for us—I’m totally fine with them having a phone. I did this for my older kid when they were in fifth grade or sixth grade, and it’s fine.’ ” The majority, she says, just give kids phones because they don’t have enough time—or the will—to push back.
Even so, her Wait Until 8th pledge has “spread like wildfire” to all 50 states in the last six years, with about 45,000 parents now having signed on, she says. Sign-ups slowed during the pandemic, Shannon says, when “nobody really wanted to hear about screen time.”
“But since the pandemic is behind us, there’s definitely been an uptick and more interest in the pledge,” she says.
That includes Phil Funk, an Indianapolis father of four young kids, who says he’s persuaded “45 percent” of the parents in his children’s Catholic school to sign the pledge since he started a campaign last fall. But though he’s had “tremendous success” with parents of kids in grades K–5, he’s struggling with people who have kids in middle school, when the “vast majority” of students already have phones.
“This is one of the most difficult parenting questions that we’re going to face,” says Funk, who received his first cell phone in college—“and that was a flip phone and there was no internet access.”
“We have to prepare them for the world as it is today,” he admits. But “we want to do it in a controlled way.”
Tim Carney, a Virginia father of six, is waging his own campaign at his children’s schools but says his demands are “more radical” than the Wait Until 8th pledge. That’s because he wants his kids—and their peers—to wait until they’re 18 before joining the world of smartphones.
“Social media can change the way you see yourself so that you’re always imagining a second self looking at you,” the 44-year-old writer says. “You know, like ‘How would this moment come across? How can I tweet this out? How can I write about this?’ ”
Studies show some teens check their phones “almost constantly,” a fact that alarms Carney.
“I’m not afraid of my kids being exposed to screens,” he says. “I don’t want their understanding of themselves to be changed by having social media accounts, or by constantly being attached to a smartphone.”
But Riley Nicholson, a 12-year-old on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, says she’s already comparing herself to her peers—not because she has a phone, but because there’s only one other kid in her entire seventh-grade class without one.
“Everyone else is always talking about texting each other and stuff and I’m just like, ‘um. . . ’ ” Nicholson says.
Her mother, Brittany Nicholson, 40, worries about her daughter feeling “left out” but also believes “really strongly that she’ll have a better experience in life without a smartphone.” The third-grade teacher says she’s waiting as long as she can before buying the devices for her daughter and two sons, ages 7 and 8.
“I want her to experience life through her own experiences, not comparing herself to what other people are doing on their phones. Or to do things just to take a picture of it so that she can show it off on social media,” the mother says.
Many parents told me they don’t want their kids to develop the same dysfunctional relationship with technology that they have.
Erika Ahern, a 42-year-old website editor living in Connecticut, says she often checks her phone late at night if she doesn’t make an effort to put it away first thing after work. She wants to raise her six homeschooled kids to choose “real life” over their screens.
“Kids should be able to run outside this time of year and see things growing and see spring happening and to be totally entranced and enchanted by the world,” she says.
“My biggest fear is that they grew up to be slaves to an addiction,” adds Ahern. “I think it’s like, ‘Are you the master of technology or is it the master of you?’ ”
Nicholas Kardaras specializes in treating young adults aged 17 to 25 with screen addictions at the Omega Recovery treatment center in Austin, Texas. Kardaras says the first hurdle is often convincing patients they’re actually addicted.
“They don’t realize that they have a problem even though they’re on their device for 18 hours a day and flunking out of school because most addicts don’t see their addiction as a problem when they’re in the middle of it,” he tells me.
Kardaras says his patients are often convinced they’re dealing with other issues, like Tourette syndrome or borderline personality disorder, which they’re introduced to through “psychiatrically unwell influencers” on social media.
He said he knows these patients are actually suffering from “social contagion” instead, because the treatment—forbidding access to cell phones and the internet for a short period of time—is usually the cure, which “shouldn’t really happen with genuine borderline personality disorder or genuine gender dysphoria.”
Paradoxically, Kardaras says that almost all of his young patients were raised by “helicopter parents,” many of whom did their best to keep their kids away from smartphones or heavily monitored their internet use.
“A lot of the young people I’ve worked with will say, ‘I don't feel a sense of control in my life,’ ” he says. “They feel like they’re being smothered and being told what to do all the time. But if they take out their phone, and maybe go on a gaming platform, then they feel like they’re conquering fantasy worlds. They feel a sense of empowerment and control.”
Kardaras, who authored a book on tech addiction, endorses the Wait Until 8th pledge, saying 13 is the sweet spot when children are old enough to “handle” some of the internet’s toxicity. He says his two identical twin boys had to hit that age before they were given smartphones.
“If I kept them Amish until 18, they would go crazy at 19,” he says.
Saying no to phones might get easier for parents now that lawmakers are passing new rules and regulations. Last fall, California’s governor Gavin Newsom enacted a law mandating “robust privacy protections” for social media users under 18, which will be the strictest of its kind in the U.S. when it goes into effect next year. Some New York State lawmakers want tech companies to provide a 911-style helpline whenever a child’s data is compromised. Over in Utah, and now Arkansas, social media companies must receive parental consent before minors can join their platforms. On a national level, a bipartisan group of senators are trying to pass legislation requiring digital platforms to “prevent and mitigate” mental health disorders and “addiction-like behaviors.”
Meanwhile, Big Tech continues to roll out features they say make their products “safe” for kids, with Snapchat introducing its first parental controls this past year and TikTok planning to establish similar measures.
Parental controls are sometimes the last resort for parents who have already given their children smartphones. One couple in Inwood, an enclave of Upper Manhattan, is still reeling from the decision to give their daughter Helena, now 13, a device for Christmas two years ago.
“It’s all been downhill from there,” according to Helena’s mother, Milly Hernandez, a 43-year-old operations manager.
Now, she said, Helena hardly touches her violin.
“I’ve tried to take the nice approach,” Hernandez says. “I say, ‘Oh, can you please put it away’ or ‘You’ve had the phone for too long, darling,’ or ‘Your poor eyes’ or ‘Your brain needs rest.’ ”
She leans in, as though confessing to a priest: “I think I’m going to go batshit.”
This spring, Hernandez and her husband Troy Gordon, a 41-year-old accountant, plan to install controls on Helena’s iPhone that will expand or limit her use based on how much time she’s devoting to other, more creative activities like music and artwork.
“In about three months from now, if we’ve gone ahead and done that, I think she will turn around and say, ‘You know what, I am much happier,’ ” her father, Gordon, says. “I think it will all end well.”
Then he pauses: “Maybe I’m deluded.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated that the recent worldwide study on smartphone use polled nearly one million youths, when it actually polled 28,000. Sapien Labs, which conducted the research, runs an ongoing global survey of mental health with nearly a million participants so far. —TFP
Olivia Reingold is a Free Press reporter. Read her last piece about teenagers competing at the national Hebrew Bible competition.
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