Proposed Smartphone Ban for Kids; What's Next?

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Dr. Tim Farnum, anesthesiologist and founder of the nonprofit Parents Against Underage Smartphones (PAUS), is spearheading legislation that proposes a smartphone ban for children under 13 years of age. The proposed law would be a first should it hit the 2018 Colorado ballot as desired— the rate limiting step will be getting 300,000 required signatures of support.

The initiative includes financially punitive along with administrative logistical issues for retailers. It suggests verification by state government of who these businesses are selling to and whether they asked about the age of the intended user. Should they fail to do so and not sufficiently report to the government or repeatedly sell to an underage consumer, fines could reach $500. It further includes submitting monthly reports to the Colorado Department of Revenue. 

This proposal has generated not so surprising controversy. 

From Dr. Farnum’s perspective according to The Coloradoan, “eventually kids are going to get phones and join the world, and I think we all know that, but little children, there’s just no good that comes of that.” Prompted by observing negative effects on his own children, it is reported he ultimately took away the phone and proclaims “The apps are all designed to addict you…For children, it’s not a good thing.”

Push back from Colorado Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, in the same article came as “Frankly, I think it should remain a family matter. I know there have been different proposals out there regarding the internet and putting filters on websites that might put kids at risk. I think ultimately, this comes down to parents…making sure that kids are not putting themselves at risk. I don’t think it’s the most effective way to deal with a real problem that our children spend too much time on the computer or too much time looking down at their phones.”

They are both right in their sentiments. Smartphones like donuts—when unlimited— can amount to too much of a good thing and cause deleterious effects. And, though Dr. Farnum’s endeavor is undoubtedly well-intended, it underscores a consistently problematic approach to implementing one-size-fits-all policies to more complex matters. We don’t need to venture very far to see how initial policies on opioid restrictions led to a surge in heroin and fentanyl abuse and lethal overdoses. 

Decades ago, it was the television. Now, it is the smartphone. We do live in often overwhelmingly stimulating times. The next invention is unfathomable given the dramatic cultural shift post-internet. 

But, with our modern societal shifts, we have also taken a departure from parenting and replaced the emphasis with a preoccupation on surviving and avoiding rampant perceived dangers lurking around every corner. Though it can seem unmanageable, certain fundamental truths remain. Children mimic what they see. Parents have a tremendous influence on their children and leading by example still has one of the most profound impacts. 

Being able to be comfortable in the stillness, is crucial— especially today— to developing coping skills that will positively serve children throughout adulthood. Parents are not powerless to facilitate these vital, wonderful attributes. It is the fine line not to enable behaviors that don’t support raising an independent, well-adjusted, adaptable and resilient adult. 

When a child can’t self-soothe or does not learn to cope effectively due to adverse childhood experiences, toxic stress or persistent anxiety, then issues of addiction and mental health can be an eventual outcome. The great news is much can be done in childhood to intervene so that that path is not a certain future. And, it doesn’t necessitate governmental mandates.

As in much of life, there are no guarantees but there are ways to minimize negative outcomes in adulthood when assuming the lofty task of raising children. Daughters of mothers who drink more milk, drink more milk. Parents who eat vegetables, will have kids who prefer them. You want your child to be active, then they need to see you taking the stairs when reasonable and participating in family activities. If you maintain a soft addiction of obsessively checking your email on your phone constantly or visibly react significantly if there is no service repeatedly, then the value of the media, its importance and meaning escalate in the mind of a child. 

The examples are vast in a parent’s capacity to influence a child. There are many avenues now to seek help and guidance should you question whether you are being effective or not or if you are confused as to creating a framework for smartphone use, in particular. For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) put out new guidelines on media and young minds that is a helpful resource, see here. Discussions with your pediatrician is another welcome interaction.

Stopping use like Dr. Farnum did when he witnessed changing behavior is an admirable decision. Parenting is no easy road and in modern times there are certainly more minefields than previously known. Stopping progress to preserve childhood is an understandable goal, but a misguided one. The train has left the station on that and history reveals innovation is dynamic and inevitable. But, being a good role model and taking the time to encourage the uniqueness of each child are timeless, achievable realities.   

Every child is different and should not be put into a box. Where one might have the self-regulatory ability and maturity to manage a smartphone responsibly, another might not and this is where familial guidance plays a substantial role. Abdicating that responsibility to the state will do a disservice to the development of such an essential bond. 

It is within a parent’s discretion whether these devices become an electronic babysitter, source for concern or a useful, occasional tool to educate and inform. Like all else in life, moderation is most optimal for most of us. When we venture into the extreme is when dilemmas arise.