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Some parents turning to 'dumb phones' for their kids

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Some local parents are resisting the pressure to give their kids smartphones and encouraging others to do the same for the health and social benefits.

"We're not about no tech. We're more about slow tech," Kirsten Sweet told CTV News Edmonton during a recent interview.

She and Jill Antoniolli, both mothers to two young kids, say they will not provide their children with a smartphone before high school and only allow them to join social media once they are 16 years old.

They launched The Gen Alpha Movement in St. Albert, Alta., this year after learning about some of the negative impacts of smartphones on young people's mental health and the danger posed by internet strangers.

As part of their self education, they watched the Children 2.0 documentary, listened to the Scrolling to Death podcast, and read American psychologist Jonathan Haidt's book The Anxious Generation, from which they borrowed the age guidelines for smartphone and social media use.

Around the same time, they attended presentations at their schools by the internet child exploitation investigators at ALERT, a provincial law enforcement agency.

"We were learning new terms like sextortion. I was like, 'What does that even mean? I don't know,'" recalled Antoniolli.

"We thought we knew about social online presence, social media, all that stuff. But we didn't know very much at all."

Although Haidt's methods have been the subject of some criticism, his conclusion that smartphones may be harmful to children have been echoed by studies in Canada and the U.S.

"What's happening with our phones at the moment is we give them to children – these highly addictive devices – right at the time when all of this incredible brain activity is happening and in essence what happens is that these phones become almost little transport mechanisms for ongoing on-demand shot of dopamine," said Tania Johnson, a psychologist in St. Albert and co-founder of the educational resource Institute of Child Psychology.

"In essence, what these phones become are experience blockers. As a psychologist who works in clinical practice, we see the kids are sleeping less, they are not playing as much, they're not engaging in sports, lots of them don't have deep passions. They really just don't know how to connect with other human beings."

Sweet said, "Of course we want our kids to communicate with each other and we want to be able to communicate with them, but we're learning that a smartphone is maybe not the best choice for that at first."

She and Antoniolli will instead consider giving their kids a "dumb phone," a device only capable of calling and texting. Several "kids phones" like this are available in the U.S., such as the Bark, Gabb, and Light phones, and at least one in Canada.

"I know eventually they're going to have a phone, they're going to be on social media. Eventually they're going to do that, but why do I need to do it now? I want them to have a childhood; I want them to play, I want them to have friends that they actually talk to in person," Antoniolli added.

"I don't want them to have to have another part to their life that's stressful, that they don't understand yet."

Johnson also plans to follow Haidt's advice with her own two daughters.

In her work with families, however, she also recommends taking other action like:

  • limiting screen time;
  • turning off notifications to limit the distraction and disruption;
  • placing computers and charging stations in public areas of the house; and
  • adults following the same rules, because teen behaviour is often influenced by their parents.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Nicole Weisberg and Evan Klippenstein