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Wait Until 8th: Cell Phones in Middle School?

For the majority of Greenwich High School students, the ubiquitous presence of screens has become a norm of life. Texting friends or scrolling through Snapchat feels like second-nature. Remember when you got your first phone? Our own group of Beak reporters serve as a microcosm of what we often see in our community: most received their phones after 5th grade graduation.  A Beak poll of 14 GHS students demonstrated a similar trend as every high schooler had received a phone by 7th grade, with over 60% using Iphones. Modern teens have developed a relationship with technology: with quick access to news, we have developed a broader sense of global awareness, and through social media, we feel connected to others.

Yet, how authentic do those electronic connections prove to be? Throughout her career, Surekha Shenoy, a pediatrician at Darien Pediatric Associates, has explored the answers to such questions. A rise in the number of patients experiencing depression prompted her to hone her research on smartphones’ impact on children and teens. On February 28th, the North Mianus PTA hosted a panel discussion on delaying the introduction of smartphones to middle schoolers. The four panelists were Dr. Shenoy, Kristie Calvillo, social researcher and cofounder of Behavior Therapy Group, chief of police Jim Heavey, and police officer Kaitlin Ciarleglio.

At the event, Dr. Shenoy explained that, while it is important to feel “usefully connected” to family, smartphones and social media act as a barrier to social interaction between kids of all ages.Children learn the human skills they need in life during middle and high school, and constant smartphone use conflicts with this developmental phase.

Many teens who received phones at younger ages experience the grasp of their phones too. “I guess the younger you get a phone the more dependent you are on it, because ever since I got my phone I can’t imagine my life without it,” said Mira Lukazik, a sophomore at GHS.

“To be able to have good human connections, we must be able to connect intimately”, explained Dr. Shenoy, and that happens with face-to-face conversation that ‘stimulates’ and does not simply ‘connect’, as she put it.

In addition, smartphones degrade students’ attention. Analyzing the results of a study in which multiple teenagers used their phones for long periods in a week, Dr. Shenoy stressed the resulting increase in ADHD symptoms among the teenagers. Hearing the frequent buzzing and beeping of a device causes the average person to check their phone 150 times a day (New York Times, Brody, Hooked on our Smartphones), leading to fragmented attention.

Speaker Kristie Calvillo discussed the “mental implications” of smartphones, deepening the conversation about the link between mental health and screen use. Current generation have seen an increase in depression, suicidal ideation, and anxiety; a significant factor of such stress is the notifications that phones send out, which spike anxiety as a student feels they must continue to look at and respond to their messages.

Our smartphones unlock another blessed-and-cursed realm: social media. A pressure to maintain an endearing and accepted image that others will ‘like’, precipitates feelings of insecurity, isolation, and/or frustration that contribute to emotional and mental difficulties. “I was the last of my friends to receive a smartphone and looking back that was a good thing” said Kate Ochoa, a GHS sophomore. Chief of police, Jim Heavey, discussed sexting, cyberbullying and suicide threats, stressing the online dangers that young children and teens struggle to manage.

Those pressures to get a phone early led Texas mother, Brooke Shannon, to create the “Wait Until 8th” campaign, in which parents sign a pledge that they will not give their child a smartphone until 8th grade. The 8,500 current signatures for the “Wait Until 8th” campaign support parents’ hopes to abate the harmful impacts of smartphones and “let kids be kids a little longer” (waituntil8th.org). The panel urged parents to follow this movement.

Then the question rises; how can parents contact their children? If you have already grown weary of the trending “vintage” style, gear up for more. Parents are now turning to flip phones as a replacement, as recommended by the panelists as they relinquish the social media and internet distraction.

While one must recognize the utility of our devices in forming connections, the harmful repercussions continue to impact young children, teens, and adults. Engaging in the conversation about smartphone brings reflection about digital presence in our world and empowers teens to change device use.

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