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Why banning the sale of smartphones to kids is a bad idea


Kids and their smartphones … amirite? 

Parents around the world are acutely aware that once a child gets his or her tiny hands on a cellphone, it’s practically impossible to pry those sticky little fingers free. And, we’re told, this is unhealthy and bad. 

So what if we made it illegal?

This is the thinking behind the Colorado nonprofit  Parents Against Underage Smartphones, which is pushing a proposed 2018 state ballot measure that would ban the sale of smartphones to children 12 and under. What’s more, reports the Coloradoan, if successfully placed on the ballot and voted into law, the measure would require phone retailers to ask their customers who the primary user of a smartphone will be. If the answer is a kid, the company would be required to decline the sale. 

Sellers found in repeated violation would be fined. 

But while the idea of keeping smartphones out of the hands of young humans is intuitively appealing for all sorts of reasons, PAUS’s measure has one glaring flaw: It completely misses the point. 

Sure, it’s a problem

The image of kids glued to smartphones — oblivious to the world around them — is a powerful kick to our collective guts for all the right reasons. We want children to engage with their fellow humans, develop problem-solving and language skills, and have a childhood free from the numerous pitfalls of social media. Unfettered access to a smartphone can impede all of these things, argue the members of PAUS. As such, those same members have no problem capitalizing on parents’ innate revulsion to plugged-in zombie children in order to push their agenda. 

Because when it comes down to it, claims PAUS founder Dr. Tim Farnum, smartphones and children just don’t mix. 

“Years from now parents will look back on our time and shake their heads and wonder how we allowed this atrocity,” the organization semi-coherently explains on its website. “Allowing our children to be robbed of their carefree days of wonder, laughter, and normal natural development. Yes, they will wonder, didn’t they see it?, didn’t they see their children stop achieving, stop playing, stop laughing, ceasing to be free?”

Tap… tap… tap…

Image: Thanasis Zovoilis/Getty Images

Sound familiar? It should. It’s a version of the same argument used in the past to advocate for regulating video games, comics, movies, and, yes, rap music. And just like with those four horsemen of the lost-innocence apocalypse, some smartphone content is probably not appropriate for those under the age of 13. After all, there’s an entire ecosystem of freemium apps that are specifically designed to be addictive. If adults can’t handle that, the argument goes, how can we expect children to?

And yeah, there’s a good point there. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a host of recommended guidelines regarding children’s exposure to digital media. Unsurprisingly, none of that advice involves letting kids’ eyes glaze over as they crush candy for hours on end.    

Still, however, the question remains: Should Colorado ban the sale of smartphones intended for children? The answer, of course, is no. 

Just don’t give your kid a smartphone

Now, I know this is outlandish, but bear with me here: How many 12-year-olds do you know with sufficient freedom of movement and spending cash to be able to make their way to a cellphone shop and walk out the door with a brand new Android? 

As with so many things in life, the problem isn’t the kids. It’s the parents. 

Dr. Farnum inadvertently made this very point when, speaking of his own children, he attempted to explain the necessity of his proposed ballot measure

They would get the phone and lock themselves in their room and change who they were,” he told the Coloradoan

If exposure to smartphones is in your mind dangerous enough to warrant a law preventing it, maybe just don’t buy your kids smartphones? If safety is a concern, there are plenty of dumbphone options that will allow children to stay in touch with parents without providing those same kids unfettered access to the horrors of Dark Web assassination markets or whatever. 

And let’s be real: Kids locking themselves in their bedrooms is a time-honored tradition that existed long before smartphones came around. While this may come as a surprise to Farnum, his teenage kids would likely be closing those doors with or without a smartphone. 

Now, before this piece veers into the realm of Reagan-era parenting fanfic, we should be clear about one thing: The government absolutely has a vital role in keeping all of us, including our children, safe (even if our elected officials are often derelict in that duty). But what Farnum and PAUS miss is that, when it comes to smartphones, it’s both impossible and misguided for elected officials to micromanage how we spend our free time — even if we happen to be under the age of 13. 

Parents, on the other hand, have a long history of micromanaging their children. Maybe Farnum and those worried about the detrimental effects of technology should look to that storied past for inspiration and simply take their kids’ smartphones away. After all, it’d be a hell of a lot easier than getting a measure on the Colorado state ballot. 

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