AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s the new normal for a lot of parents: kids sucked in by screens at home, restaurants and grocery stores.   

Now, families who are worried about their kids’ mental health and behavior are trying “unplugged parenting.” 

Brooke Shannon, a mom of three girls from Austin, wasn’t ready to get her oldest a cell phone. Shannon’s third-grader kept asking when she would get her own phone.

“A couple of friends from school … had them and even some kids at the younger grades at her school … were sporting the latest iPhone,” Shannon said. “Every couple of weeks it was, ‘Mom, when can I get a phone?’ and it just seemed so young and so early.” 

Starting a movement 

Shannon talked to several other parents who were also feeling the pressure.

“As we started to ask around, many parents said they eventually caved on the smartphone because ‘everyone had them’ and they did not want their child to feel left out,” she said.  

Brooke Shannon is behind the Wait Until 8th movement started in Austin (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

Shannon and the other parents eventually banded together and started the Wait Until 8th pledge in 2017. She is the founder and executive director of the movement.

“It’s all about empowering parents to delay when they give their children smartphones,” Shannon said. “The idea is that with community, you can link arms with other parents and hold off giving your child a smartphone until at least the eighth grade.” 

So far, 20,000 families have taken the pledge nationwide. The most parents joining the movement are from Texas, California and Massachusetts. 

The pledge kicks in once at least 10 families from a child’s grade have signed it. It’s for smartphones only and if parents want their kids to have a phone that just calls and texts, they can still sign and be a part of the movement.

“By holding off on giving your child a smartphone until at least eighth grade, you are giving them more real-world experiences of being a kid,” Shannon said. 

So far, Shannon’s biggest challenge has been getting school districts on board. She hopes more districts take the pledge and set the example for parents so that it can be an easier decision to make. 

Not fully unplugged, but safer

Not all parents are unplugging completely. 

Austin resident Gerald Youngblood stays connected with his 10-year-old son, Jayden, through gaming. The two play games together and watch others play.  

“He would be watching something on YouTube — it could be a Minecraft video — and the next thing you would see would be an ad for a horror film or just really inappropriate content,” Youngblood explained. “And, while it’s family-friendly one moment, there’s curse words or there’s references to alcohol or sexual content in the same video.” 

Gerald Youngblood and his son, Jayden. Tankee features more than 500 hours of gaming videos and was created in Austin in 2017 (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

When Youngblood couldn’t find anything safer, he created Tankee in 2017. It’s an app geared towards kids between the ages of 6 and 12 years old and has created a virtual safe space of curated videos.  

“It’s not playing the actual game. It’s watching someone play Minecraft, watching someone play ROBLOX,” Youngblood explained.  

The Tankee team watches every video on the free app, adding up to more than 500 hours of gaming videos by top gaming influencers.  

“Technology has so many benefits that it’s a shame to completely wall that off. So we thought there has to be a solution where kids can watch what they want to watch, and parents can go do the dishes or watch a movie and just feel comfortable that it’s a safe space,” Youngblood said. 

Common Sense Media, a leading nonprofit which gives families tech advice, reviewed the app.

“While viewers can comment on videos, all of the comments are done with emojis, not words, so there’s no risk of saying something offensive. Similarly, screen names are made by the app, not the viewer, avoiding raunchy names, as well,” the reviewer wrote.  

The nonprofit says it could get boring for an older kid, but Youngblood explained that they’re thinking about those kids, too, as they collaborate with influencers directly to build original content. 

“We want to build a space that has high-quality content that is safe and that parents can trust, but also that kids enjoy watching,” Youngblood said.  

Tankee hit 100,000 users this summer. 

“Every day we see thousands of videos being viewed,” Youngblood said. “Part of that success is every minute that is spent on Tankee is spent in a place that was built for kids.” 

Parents can download Tankee from Apps Store or from Google Play.

Screen-free parenting

Tankee is the only app Jayden is allowed to use and his parents say he has to balance screentime with reading and playing outside. 

Screen-Free Parenting is a blog about finding the right balance. It chronicles a family and their choice not to introduce screens of any kind into their home while raising their two kids.

The couple from Pennsylvania provides parents with 1 million screen-free activities to keep the kids active and learning. The list includes everything from staging a car wash, to playing with dry noodles and flying a kite.