Concerned About Social Media, Moms in Rye Launch Nonprofit Initiative to Delay Smartphone Use

Founded by Lauren Tesoriere, Emily Wells, Maureen Neckles, and Jennifer Mellet, the group held its first community-wide event at the Rye Free Reading Room on June 12.

Rye moms discuss cell phone usage by kids
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Published June 28, 2024 9:30 AM
4 min read

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Concerned about the dangers of social media and smartphone use, a group of Rye moms recently founded IRL-Rye (which stands for In Real Life), a nonprofit dedicated to creating community and conversation around healthy tech habits, including delaying smartphone and social media use until age 16.

Founded by Lauren Tesoriere, Emily Wells, Maureen Neckles, and Jennifer Mellet, the group held its first community-wide event at the Rye Free Reading Room on Wednesday, June 12. About 25 parents turned out to watch “Childhood 2.0,” a documentary that lays out the challenges of being a kid in the modern digital age.

Katey McPherson, director of professional development for Bark for Schools, a company that offers monitoring for kids’ electronic devices, moderated the event, explaining that she hoped that “parents walk away from our education sessions empowered and motivated to be more intentional about monitoring and supervision of a virtual playground that doesn’t come with any staff.”

Packed with shocking statistics and harrowing stories, the 90-minute film occasionally left the room of mostly local moms gasping. Through side-by-side testimonials from parents and their children, “Childhood 2.0,” presents a picture of what parents think their kids are doing online and the almost diametrically opposed reality of what is actually happening. The film, which is available on YouTube, also explores issues of mental health and sexual exploitation and abuse, and points out the lack of government regulations and oversight. Its most emphatic message is that the issues depicted in the film are not happening in a vacuum, but, with certainty, exist right here.

“Parents should always be concerned with who their children are interacting with, whether it be strangers on the street or strangers on the internet,” Police Commissioner Michael Kopy said in an interview, adding that he gets weekly complaints about digital issues. “We receive many reports, and in my opinion, fewer than probably exist, regarding individuals who have tried to solicit children for unlawful conduct here in Rye. We always urge parents to contact the police department if they suspect their children may be victims of online scams or abuses.”

McPherson conducted a follow-up session the next morning at Tesoriere’s home, answering questions about the film and allowing parents to reflect on their own experiences with technology. Over granola parfaits and breakfast quiches, about 15 people expressed fear and concern about how technology use may affect their children’s futures.

Maria Seller, a local mom who has four kids ranging from mid-teens to mid-20s, warned the group, “When you hand your kids a cellphone, your workload triples. Parents instantly become responsible for managing their children’s digital lives — real time, remotely, and retroactively.”

McPherson added, “This industry continues to bank on the fact that parents are too busy and stressed and using the ‘not my kid’ approach. It’s not your kid I worry about as much as I worry about the untethered access we have unleashed upon them.”

Wells, Tesoriere, Neckles, and Mellet, with the help of several other local moms, started IRL to educate and inform, to provide alternative solutions to traditional smartphones (such as some of the newer kid-safe smartphones), and to get parents to sign “the pledge,” a promise that they won’t hand a smartphone to their children for at least the next school year. IRL is similar to Wait Until 8th, a national organization that encourages parents to pledge to delay giving their children smartphones until the end of eighth grade. But unlike Wait Until 8th, IRL adheres to the guidelines set forth by popular social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose best-selling book “The Anxious Generation” links mental health issues to cellphone use. He recommends that parents not hand over a smartphone until high school and social media until 16 years of age.

Tesoriere was unsure how IRL would be received by the community, but said the group, which launched its efforts in mid-June, already had 239 signatures on its website.

“It only takes 25-30 percent of a community to shift a cultural norm,” she said. “It’s really incredible, given how pervasive the trend of gifting iPhones to graduating fifth graders has been, that so much of our community is ready and eager to support this initiative. This feels like a no-brainer for most parents of younger kids and those with older ones are echoing a similar sentiment, having experienced the challenges not just for their teens but for themselves as parents.”

The group assembled before the launch of Haidt’s book. But IRL has no doubt benefited from the book’s popularity as well as the timeliness of the current cultural conversation around smartphone and social media use.

In fact, just last week, the U.S. Surgeon General called on Congress to require warning labels on social media platforms, and in March, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida signed one of the country’s most restrictive social media bans for minors. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychological Science in 2017, found that kids who spent three hours or more a day on smartphones or other electronic devices were 34 percent more likely to have suicidal thoughts.

As momentum builds around the issue, IRL hopes to ride the wave. They are looking to not only continue to secure buy-in with parents, but with the community at large. “We know that navigating all of the technology in our children’s lives won’t be easy, but if we band together in holding out on giving kid-safe devices, we can turn a big and multifaceted problem into a manageable one,” said Wells. To learn more about IRL, visit www.irlrye.org

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