"As children grow older, parents must give them greater freedom, including greater freedom to make mistakes. "

Parents Should Not Allow Smartphones

When I was a child, a popular comic strip was "There Oughta Be a Law." It ran in the paper that came to our doorstep every morning and was one of the first things I went to when it was my turn to get ink all over my fingers. I later realized that at one level the cartoonist was satirizing people who hold to great faith in the ability of government to solve all manner of social problems.

I thought of TOBL when I read in General Surgery News (online) that a group of well-intentioned folks in Colorado—Parents Against Underage Smartphones (PAUS)—are lobbying state lawmakers to draft a law that would prevent smartphone sales to children under 13. Their rationale is certainly unimpeachable: they maintain that smartphone use in pre- and young teens quickly becomes an obsession that can harm ongoing brain development, hinder social skills, and even create addiction. The best research confirms all of that.

The Colorado law would create a bureaucracy that would be charged with enforcing said law, which, needless to say, cannot be done with any reliability. The proposed law would require smartphone retailers to ask the age of the primary user before making a sale. The question then becomes: What prevents the purchaser (presumably a parent) from telling a lie? Does Colorado then create another law that imposes fines on parents who break the law and/or requires them to attend technology education programs? No, I’m not kidding. Those who govern us cannot, it seems, resist any opportunity to expand the powers of the state.

This legislation, should it pass, will be paid for with taxes which means that nearly everyone in Colorado will be punished because many of those who have children (a) want their children to like them, (b) cannot manage to articulate the word “no,” (c) prefer, when it comes to childrearing issues, to take the easy way out, (d) all of the above. The answer, of course, is (d).

It is not even clear that the folks at PAUS understand that the solution to the smartphone problem is for parents to take FULL responsibility for it and not allow them, period. When parents ask what I think about simply restricting their use, I ask, “Why would you want the hassle?” No smartphone, no need to police it. Much easier on all concerned—even the child in question—to simply confiscate and make sure it permanently disappears. And yes, some parents prefer to stick their heads and even most of their bodies in the ground. No law is going to change that, not one that a rational judge would find constitutional anyway.

I’ll repeat the recommendation I’ve given in prior episodes of this column: Until your child is both (a) no longer living in your home and (b) can afford the purchase of a smartphone and the monthly bill, refuse to fund anything more than a standard, garden-variety cell phone that will only make and receive calls (most of them will also text, but only laboriously). I personally know more than a few adults who own nothing more and manage to live full and satisfying lives.

“But smartphones are how today’s kids all communicate, John!”

That’s not true either. I know of teens who have nothing more than old-fashioned cell phones. If their parents are to be believed, most of them don’t like it, but they get over it, and end up acting a whole lot more like authentic human beings than their glassy-eyed peers.

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