A group in Colorado is gathering signatures to hold a ballot initiative in the 2018 election to ban cell phone retailers from selling their products to children under the age of 13.
Of course, there is precedent for banning substances for children, but unlike tobacco and alcohol, the concern with smartphones is not about physical effects, but rather psychological ones. Mobile devices, the group (Parents Against Underage Smartphones) claims, create behavior problems in children and are generally unhealthy for them. And for this reason they should not be allowed.
First off, I’ll acknowledge that the claim is not wholly without merit. I have two nieces, and the effect on their behavior when they spend too much time on a tablet or computer is noticeable. That being said, anecdotes are not data, and while it seems likely that plenty of kids turn into monsters around smartphones, it is by no means certain that the effect is universal or that it creates any permanent harm.
What we really have here is a classic case of busybodies asking the state to assume the role of parent. Whenever some subset of parents is observed doing a bad job, or what others consider to be a bad job, there are always those who will insist that an authority figure get involved to correct the situation.
Like the kid who goes running to the principal every time he observes misbehavior, some people never grow out of the urge to meddle, using the force of law as a backstop. The proposed measure would impose hefty fines — from $500 to $20,000 for continued violations — on retailers who dare to sell their product to willing, if young, customers.
The compliance costs for retailers may also prove burdensome. The proposal states, “Retailers must verbally inquire about the age of the intended primary owner of the smartphone prior to the sale, document the response, and file a monthly report to the Department of Revenue.”
It is unclear how we are going to instill a sense of personal responsibility and maturity into children if the government is forever dictating the choices they are allowed to make, including participating in modern technology.
Where some parents may see smartphones as a nuisance that should be banned, others may view them as an opportunity to teach their children about self-restraint, etiquette, and the complex and dangerous task of navigating the world of cyberspace. As soon as the government steps in and forbids the use of these devices, all these opportunities disappear. You can’t learn self-control when the government is already controlling you.
As hard as it is for some to accept, children are people. They are highly variable individuals who mature at different rates and will have different responses to certain stimuli. A blanket rule governing what children can be exposed to ignores this, and treats them as though all kids are alike, with similar circumstances, abilities, and levels of emotional development.
Some children are in situations where they need phones to communicate. There are certainly plenty of precocious 12-year-olds engaged in activities outside the home, where the ability to call one’s parents, teachers, or peers is of great use. Others may require information from the internet at a moment’s notice, such as young sailors, campers, or boy scouts who need up-to-date weather reports. These are just a few examples, and there are countless others.
You may believe that no child should engage in such activities without adult supervision, and that’s your decision as a parent, but others like to foster a sense of independence in their children, and smartphones can help facilitate that independence.
The point is that every child is unique and requires the unique guidance only a parent can give. Government restrictions will never be able to know the child as a person in the same way his mother and father do.
When government acts as a surrogate for good parenting, it destroys the special bond that exists within families. The sense of trust and responsibility necessary for healthy development is supplanted by blind obedience to external rules, with no room for exception or personalization. The instinct to protect children in Colorado is understandable, but ultimately misguided and destructive.
Logan Albright is a researcher for Conservative Review and director of research for Free the People. You can follow him on Twitter @loganalbright73.