Some parents are determined to keep their kids away from social media and smartphones. Here's what it's like.

How parents have tried to set boundaries around social media. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)
How parents have tried to set boundaries around social media. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

Last summer HGTV stars Erin and Ben Napier announced the launch of Osprey (short for "Old School Parents Raising Engaged Youth"), which offers resources for parents who are working to help their kids have "social media-free childhoods until they graduate high school," according to its website. The Osprey community encourages like-minded parents to band together in “nests” to support one another and stay accountable in restricting social media, the thinking being that having fewer peers who are active online reduces the pressure to follow suit.

In August 2023, as kids headed back to school, Erin Napier — who has been vocal about wanting to keep the couple's two young daughters tech-free — told Osprey subscribers in a newsletter that she had emailed the parents in her older girl's class and invited them to join her family's "low-tech circle." But what does that look like, and how worried should parents be about letting their children use social media? Here's what experts say, and why some parents are pledging to keep their families away from screens as much as possible.

The Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health issued last year by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy — who considers 13 too young for kids to join social media and has called for health warnings on social media platforms — warns that “excessive and problematic use of social media can harm children and adolescents by disrupting important healthy behaviors.” This can include a child’s sleep, mental health, academic performance and social skills. While the latest recommendations from the American Psychological Association (APA) noted that some teens and tweens — such as those who identify as LGBTQ and lack support at home — can find community on social media, the organization also urged parents to monitor their child's online activity, teach them media literacy and be vigilant for signs of problematic use or exposure to harmful content.

"Other than climate change, this is the fight of this generation," Emily Cherkin, a parent and former middle school teacher — whose book The Screentime Solution: A Judgment-Free Guide to Becoming a Tech-Intentional Family will be published next year — says of young people's reliance on screens, social media and smartphones. Known as the "Screentime Consultant," Cherkin describes herself as "tech-intentional" rather than "anti-tech" and stresses the importance of parents' relationship with their child while they navigate the challenges of social media. “If you don’t have a healthy relationship with your kid, none of this works," she says of implementing social media restrictions that are "in alignment with your family's values."

Dr. Adriana Stacey agrees. She is a psychiatrist and medical adviser for ScreenStrong, a nonprofit that educates families on how to prevent and address screen problems. “From my perspective as a psychiatrist who has been in this arena for a decade, the best way to do this is to have parent connection in combination with education," she says.

For some parents, that means pushing back against the widespread use of social media and smartphones by joining movements like Osprey and the similarly minded Wait Until 8th (as in, no smartphones until eighth grade, though Stacey maintains that "you should not have a smartphone before you learn to drive a car") to delay and minimize social media. Here's what it's like.

Leslie M., who asked to not share her last name, tells Yahoo Life that she attended an Osprey panel discussion, which also included Stacey, at the University of Mississippi this summer and was inspired by the event to form a “nest" with other parents.

“I got with a couple of my mom friends,” Leslie tells Yahoo Life, “and we all made a vow to limit what our kids are exposed to. We’re active in our churches and that plays a role in what our kids experience.” Social media had a negative impact on her stepdaughter, she says, recalling "watching it turn kids into unfeeling zombies and then rage when parents took their cellphones away." She's determined to help her son avoid that.

Born and raised in California, Leslie now resides on Mississippi’s coast, where her son attends a low-tech private school that doesn’t allow smartphones. As the organizer of her own "nest," she intends to plan play dates for the kids that include activities like “playing in the mud.” She also wants her “nest” to expand. “I want my son to have a community of kids who have parents with shared ideas," she says. "This is the hill I will die on and I won't back down.”

Does she think the parent-led Osprey model will work? “I hope it will," Leslie says. "We all have some level of addiction to our phones. But it's absolutely destroying our children. It's taking away their creativity. It's taking away their ability to be kind.”

Tiasha L., a mother in Columbus, Ohio, has opted to not give her daughter a smartphone, wishing to prioritize her daughter’s “academics, extracurricular interests and friendships outside of texting and social media apps." She admits that this was initially a hard and unpopular decision.

“There have been times where she was frustrated and disappointed to not have a smartphone, so there are ups and downs," Tiasha tells Yahoo Life. "But ultimately, she understands and isn't left out that much, so we haven't caved."

But her daughter, who is 12 years old and often walks or bikes to school independently or with friends, is allowed to use a smartwatch for safety reasons. "It can only receive or send calls and messages to approved contacts, and only preprogrammed messages, with no photos or videos," says her mom, who used Wait Until 8th resources for guidance in choosing the right kid's smartwatch and implementing parental controls on her tablet. "It doesn't have any apps that can be downloaded or internet access.”

Tiasha isn’t concerned about her daughter falling behind with technology because she has developed skills in robotics, coding and computer science. “She has mentioned, on more than one occasion, how a lot of her peers are being negatively impacted by interactions via social media or inappropriate messages they've received from other students," she notes. "That sort of thing cements our decision even more to wait.”

Tiasha also tries to lead by example, which means organizing an annual "tech-free" weekend where "we all unplug as a family" and enforcing blanket rules at home. That includes no devices at the dinner table or in the bedroom before bedtime. Keeping "open lines of communication" has also been key to fostering a healthy attitude toward social media.

"She tells us whenever she sees anything inappropriate online, because she knows she won't get in trouble," Tiasha says. "[I'm] hoping that continues.”

Carlos Valdez, a Gen X parent in Northern California, similarly decided early on to limit his kids' access to technology. “We would see families just handing over devices to kids in restaurants to keep them quiet and the ensuing meltdowns when the parents tried to take it back,” says Valdez, who admits that "we had also been taking the path of least resistance at home.”

As his kids got older, Valdez noticed their peers getting smartphones and using social media in fifth grade. “They were shaming other kids because they didn’t have at least 500 followers,” says Valdez, who says he was "shocked" by the behavior.

He began reading articles about social media and came across Wait Until 8th. The campaign’s resources led him to talk to his son about smartphones and explain why he would not receive one until he was older. But Valdez’s son learned a hard lesson when his best friend got a smartphone for his birthday. “His friend became a ‘phombie,’" says Valdez, referring to a term used to describe people fixated on their phone, "and didn’t want to talk anymore." Because smartphones weren't welcome in the Valdez home, the friend stopped coming over, and eventually the boys lost touch. “[My son] got his first real exposure to how the smartphone changes people," Valdez says.

Valdez’s son is now 15 and got a smartphone when he started high school, but still isn’t allowed social media. “His close friends know that he can text or use other types of messaging apps if they want to talk," his dad says.