Crystal Schreck, a Falmouth parent with four kids from age 5 to 25, remembers how different childhood and adolescence was for her oldest son.

“There was more in-person interaction and (things were) more spontaneous. Like, ‘Hey, I’m going to so-and-so’s house,’” she said.

For teens and tweens these days, down time is more structured and arranged, she said, in part because of the growing role of technology and social media in their lives.

“They’re missing out on social interaction, and (learning social cues) like eye contact and body language because they’re so absorbed in their devices,” Schreck said of her 12-year-old and 14-year-old kids and their peers.

But Schreck isn’t sitting idly by. She and other parents in Cumberland County have formed the Turn the Tide Coalition “to create a more thoughtful childhood rich in critical thinking, nature exploration, creative play, hands-on learning, and the freedom to make mistakes and grow.” Among their goals is getting all smartphones out of schools and urging parents to hold off on giving their students phones until after eighth grade.

The coalition has members from Scarborough, Falmouth, Yarmouth, Cape Elizabeth, RSU 5 (Freeport, Pownal, Durham), Portland, South Portland, SAD 51 (North Yarmouth and Cumberland) and Gorham, according to their website.


The group takes inspiration from the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose book “The Anxious Generation” is a manifesto of sorts that calls for an end to phone-based childhoods. When the book was released in March it caused a firestorm among a group of parents in Falmouth and sparked conversation in Scarborough and other Cumberland County towns, too.

Coalition forms

“The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness” by Jonathan Haidt has moved many parents to action. Contributed

In April, “The Anxious Generation” prompted an informal get-together of Falmouth parents, which led to the creation of Falmouth Alliance for Thoughtful Technology, a group whose mission is largely the same as the Turn the Tide Coalition. The Facebook group has over 170 members.

Their action is in response to the very real rise of tech and smartphone use among kids. A 2021 report from the nonprofit Common Sense found that 42% of 10-year-olds own a smartphone, and 91% of 14-year-olds do, compared to 19% and 59%, respectively, in 2015. During the pandemic, when Zoom classes became a regular part of schooling during the pandemic, children’s media use in general jumped, according to the report. Screen time among kids did not revert to pre-pandemic levels after many pandemic restrictions were lifted, according to a study published in 2023 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Pre-pandemic mean recreational screen time was 4 hours per day, and increased 0.89 hours per day during the period of Dec. 1, 2020, to April 30, 2021. From May 1 to Aug. 31, 2021, recreational screen time was still 0.70 hours per day above the pre-pandemic mean.

Falmouth group member Stacy Taylor, who’s 9-year-old son did kindergarten largely at home on an iPad in 2020-2021, said that post-pandemic she’s noticed lots of kids going home and spending time on screens instead of playing in person with friends.


Meanwhile, in Scarborough, a group formerly called Scarborough Wait Until 8th – in reference to a national pledge movement to have parents wait until after eighth grade to give their kids smartphones, a step also recommended by Haidt – has been reinvigorated by the release of “The Anxious Generation.”

The group, now called the Scarborough Alliance for Thoughtful Tech, was formed during the pandemic, but saw their organizing slow down after students returned fully to in-person school. Last month, however, they hosted two discussion sessions on “The Anxious Generation” at the local library. The second discussion was added after the first one filled up. The Falmouth group has organized their own discussion of the book at the Falmouth Memorial Library on July 27.

A Durham resident, Annie Ware, has been active in organizing parents for the RSU 5 Alliance for Thoughtful Technology in the Freeport area.

“This is really out of my comfort zone,” Ware told the Times Record last week, referring to kickstarting her local alliance. “But that’s how passionate I am about this.”

The Turn the Tide Coalition last week published a letter in the Portland Press Herald calling for collective action to confront the “the detrimental effects of smartphones and social media on children’s mental and physical health.”

According to Schreck, the coalition is aligned in their broad goals, though the actual work being done in different communities may vary.


“At this point we’re kind of checking in with each other … we have a status document where we say what we’re doing (to) share ideas and collaborate,” Taylor said.

Their launch has coincided with greater action around this issue in Maine – and around the country.

On June 24, the RSU 1 (Bath-area schools) board voted to ban smartphones and smartwatches in school for students Grades 6-12. Last year, Maranacook High School in Readfield and Cony Middle and High School in Augusta barred the use of smartphones in classrooms.

The second largest school district in the country, Los Angeles Unified School District, recently imposed a district-wide ban on smartphones in schools that will take effect in spring 2025, and the largest district, New York City Public Schools, could soon follow.

Warnings of tech’s deleterious impact on childhood and education are not just coming from school districts. Multiple states have passed laws cracking down on personal devices in classrooms. And in mid June, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, said that he wants to see social media platforms display warning labels advising parents that the platform might harm adolescents’ mental health.

The loss of play


Part of the reason “The Anxious Generation” has resonated so deeply with local parents is that it doesn’t just identify smartphones and tech as the enemy, it laments the loss of play.

In addition to making the case that smartphones have had a negative impact on teen mental health and young people’s social development, the book offers four steps for counteracting the problem: delay giving kids phones until high school, disallow social media until age 16, implement phone-free schools, and allow kids more independence and free play.

Rob Davidowitz, who is part of the Turn the Tide Coalition and lives in North Yarmouth, says that explaining to his 11-year-old daughter why she can’t have a phone is an ongoing conversation in his family. In the immediate term, he wants to help other parents and community members understand that tech should not play such a large role in kids’ lives.

“I want to send my daughter over to a friend’s house and I want them to just figure it out and explore, and if the other kid is on Twitter or Instagram all day – there’s a disconnect, and it’s just not going to work,” Davidowitz said.

“The more parents on board, the more realistic (Haidt’s) goals become,” he added.

“The Anxious Generation,” however, is not without critics. Candice Odgers, a developmental and quantitative and developmental psychologist who is a professor at the University of California, Irvine, wrote a review of the book arguing that Haidt’s suggestion that tech is causing an “epidemic” of mental illness is “not supported by science.” She wrote that much of Haidt’s data shows correlation, not causation. Others have criticized it along these same lines. Haidt has responded, saying there are indeed experiments supporting his claims of causation.


Revisiting policies

In May, the Falmouth School Board updated their district policies regarding “school-owned devices, privately owned devices while on campus, and school networks, and/or the school’s internet services.”

“Those policy updates really weren’t based on anything having to do specifically with cell phones,” according to Superintendent Gretchen McNulty, but nonetheless generated community discussion around how and when students should be allowed to access smartphones during the day.

Matt Pines, a former school board member who is involved with the coalition and the Falmouth Alliance for Thoughtful Technology, said he would like to see a “no personal devices in schools” policy. That’s not a step the board chose to take this past spring through the update, but McNulty said school leadership is committed to continue engaging students and parents on this issue.

Current personal smartphone use is regulated by “student and family handbooks” at each of the schools in the Falmouth district. For middle and elementary schoolers, phones are supposed to be turned off and in lockers during the school day. At the high school level, the policy states that “cell phones are not allowed to be used during class times and should be silenced during classes.”

McNulty said that school leadership is interested in revisiting the protocol for high school students and parent and student “conversations” are planned for the end of the summer to discuss potential updates.


And where are students in all of this? So far, organizing has been led by parents and non-school age people, but at least one Falmouth student has already gone on record about her dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Kathryn Williams, who recently graduated from Falmouth High School, spoke at the May board meeting about how her phone has negatively impacted her education.

“In the midst of COVID, there were two days a week where we had in-person school. I spent the other five days at home with only my family and my phone with me. I spent hours on it every week … and I fell behind in school,” she said, reflecting on her freshman year.

It was only later, during her junior year, that she imposed rules for herself and began to curb her own phone use.

She called regulating and restricting phone usage in school a temporary fix, and asked school leadership to organize social activities and opportunities to foster in person connection.

“I would like to ask on behalf of all of its students and kids that might not know what they’re missing, that the school takes some action,” she said.

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