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We must stop the smartphone social experiment on our kids

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Imagine that a James Bond villain decided to achieve world domination not with armies or drones but through our brains. They might manipulate our minds to get us addicted to fantasy worlds, turn us against one another and reduce our ability to concentrate. 

Inventing the smartphone would do it. Then persuading us to give it to our children.

Until now, parents who fear that these omnipresent devices have made children sedentary, distracted and depressed have been cowed by powerful companies, naive teachers and peer pressure. Mothers who beg schools not to set homework online, undermining screen time limits, have been told technology is a “life skill”. Fathers who fear phones mean their children can be targeted by predators and bullies in their own homes are met with the response that their GPS tracking keeps children “safe”. Families who see how online gaming disrupts learning are told that it improves problem-solving. And of course some of this is true. 

But it is impossible to ignore the exponential rise in teenage mental illness that has coincided with the smartphone becoming ubiquitous since the early 2010s. In a new book, The Anxious Generation, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that smart devices and overprotective parents have “deformed” the developmental processes of childhood. He is demanding that smartphones be banned for children under 14, and social media until 16. 

Until recently, this would have been regarded as extreme and unenforceable. But the fightback is beginning. Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis has this week signed a bill to ban under-14s in the state from social media accounts and make platforms erase any already created. This follows evidence of dramatically improved behaviour in schools after a total smartphone ban was imposed last year in Orange County.

Opponents argue that such bans are unconstitutional and interfere with parents’ rights to decide what is best for their children. But this ignores the fact that we are all trapped in a classic collective action problem. It’s hard for any individual parent to say no when everyone else’s child is online — and when coming off would make them a social pariah. The children who are most susceptible to the addictive features of social media and gaming apps will probably resist most fiercely.

Surveys show increasing support from parents for smartphone bans: in the UK, a recent poll by the charity Parentkind found 77 per cent of parents of primary school age children wanting a ban for the under 16s. Smartphone Free Childhood, a parent-led movement, is gaining traction.

China was way ahead in seeing the danger. Its cyber space regulator announced last year that children under 18 should be limited to a maximum of two hours a day on smart devices. Makers must limit use through “minor modes” similar to those which followed curfews for the country’s teenage video gamers in 2021. Chinese teenagers can’t watch Douyin, ByteDance’s Chinese version of TikTok, for more than 40 minutes per day. The western TikTok, meanwhile, has introduced a one-hour daily time limit default for teens but this is cosmetic: it can simply be turned off.

The fact that China has been far more effective in protecting its children from the excesses of technology should make western legislators think. Discussions in Washington centre on whether TikTok’s ownership makes it a threat to national security. But hyperactive apps and addictive algorithms are already a threat because they diminish children’s mental stability and their ability to learn. In 2022, a third of American teens said they were using at least one of YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook “almost constantly”. We are hardly going to win the battle with China over artificial intelligence, or anything else, if we raise a generation of zombies. 

Where China is going for the manufacturers, Europe is focusing on the classroom. France, Italy and Netherlands have banned smartphone use in schools; England this year gave teachers the power to search bags and confiscate devices. But how do we handle home and holidays? Here, we parents have to look very hard at ourselves. 

One thing parents can control, without legislation, is use of our own devices. It’s no good pontificating to your children about the evils of technology while checking your email at the table. Saying “it’s work” doesn’t cut it. I recently watched a young boy sitting bored at a table in a restaurant, clearly wanting to talk, being ignored by another child and two adults all staring at their screens.

Parents of teenagers don’t express the same support for smartphone bans as those with younger children. In the Parentkind poll, only 36 per cent of those with secondary age children were in favour. I wonder if no longer picking their children up from school means wanting to know where they are or whether they fear the consequences of going cold turkey. One of the good but insidious qualities of smart devices is how useful they have become for distracting the kids when parents need to focus. In many families, especially post-pandemic, this has become a habit.

We have blundered into a dystopia reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where books are seen as dangerous and people cocoon themselves in fantasy worlds through screens. The Chinese Communist party and some tech executives are already shielding their children from this curse. It is time for the rest of us to wise up and stop the uncontrolled experiment by Big Tech on this generation.

camilla.cavendish@ft.com

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