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The three groups opposing the smartphone ban are all wrong

We don't have to be fatalist about social media. Credit: Getty

April 11, 2024 - 7:00am

This week the news broke that the UK Government is considering banning the sale of smartphones to children. This will be music to the ears of millions of parents, but there are three groups who oppose such a ban: the sceptics, the libertarians and the fatalists. Here’s why they are wrong.

Back in January, when I asked the Prime Minister if he would consider such a ban, I was told I was mad. Yet since then, through a series of apparently unconnected events both here and in the US, there has been a dramatic shift in the narrative on this issue. 77% of parents of primary school children now support such a move and 67% of UK adults think social media is bad for kids.

Yet sceptics don’t believe that the damage caused by smartphones is significant enough to warrant legislation. That is in spite of the fact that by any measure — suicide rates, self-harm, anxiety, sexual abuse, pornography addiction — adolescent wellbeing has collapsed since smartphones became ubiquitous for children. The causal links are now well-documented.

Secondly, there are the libertarians, who believe this is a matter for parents rather than the Government. But most people accept that the State has a role in protecting citizens from powerful vested interests — and Big Tech is one of the richest and most powerful industries in history. No parent or child can stand up to the likes of Meta, TikTok or Apple. Even the 3% of over-10s who don’t have smartphones suffer the cohort effects of their entire peer group growing up online. I hesitate to invoke “lived experience”, but the smartphone revolution has been so rapid that it is hard for those who do not currently have teenage children to understand the powerlessness — and despair — parents feel.

Lastly, there are the fatalists who say any attempt to protect children from smartphones is futile because the “genie is out of the bottle”. But that is just a lazy clichĂ©. Many new innovations bring unwanted consequences — motor cars killed thousands before roads were properly regulated — yet governments find ways (eventually) to act. We cannot watch our children wither before our eyes, shrug our shoulders and say, “nothing can be done.” Just consider the number of young adults signed off work with anxiety and depression for a glimpse of what the future holds if we do nothing.

Over the last three months, through a series of seemingly unconnected events, there has been a dramatic shift in the narrative on this issue. We have seen powerful interventions from parents whose children died because of social media. There are rapidly growing movements of mums and dads campaigning for a smartphone-free childhood. In America, revelations from the questioning of Mark Zuckerberg in the Senate have revealed how much tech companies know about the damage of social media to children, and how little they care. Florida announced a ban on social media for kids. Then US social psychologist Jonathan Haidt published The Anxious Generation, charting the devastating impact of a “phone-based childhood”.

The demand for action is growing, and in the UK we will look back on the early months of 2024 as the moment the tide turned against fatalism. The fight to reclaim childhood has begun.


Miriam Cates is MP for Penistone and Stockbridge

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Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

These modern politicians are too young/too inexperienced in life/too credulous/too lazy/too stupid to remember previous crazed initiatives like the Dangerous Dogs Act.
We really do seem to be reliving the days of John Major’s “Cones Hotline” here.
Seriously, this woman thinks that such a ban is remotely practical ? You could ban the sale to children. But some adults will still buy them for the children. Black market in mobiles also guaranteed.
If Miriam Cates’ real concern is the applications that run on the smartphones (the social media stuff) – and this is what she states – then she should be trying to regulate those companies and not the devices themeselves. But we all know that facing down the tech giants – whether of tax dodging or unethical practices – is in the “too difficult” box for our gutless leaders.
There are genuine problems here. But this obviously isn’t the solution.
Yesterday’s article on the performative nature of politics – the compelling need to do something (which in practice means anything) nailed this.
Miriam’s P45 is on the way shortly though. And clearly well deserved.

Xaven Taner
Xaven Taner
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

You’re right that taking on big tech should be the priority but comparing the cumulative effects of social media to the threat of dangerous dogs is absurd.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Xaven Taner

I’m not suggesting it’s the same thing.
The thing that is the same is the gut reaction that the “solution” to any problem is banning something or ever more legislation. We have way too much legislation already which the police and courts are unable (and sometimes unwilling) to enforce.
You cannot legislate behavioural and social change. The best you can do is set an example.

Xaven Taner
Xaven Taner
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

I’d be in support of governments acting extrajudicially against the tech monopolies, in the same way we might respond to a foreign invasion (a real one, not geezers in inflatable boats). Even without that there’s plenty of evidence that social media is being used to facilitate or actively commit crime. It’s only political will – due to lobbying and outright corruption – that stops current laws being enforced.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Xaven Taner

I’m tempted to agree.
Again, it is the social media that’s the problem, not the devices themselves (the smartphones).

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago
Reply to  Xaven Taner

Do you use Google, by any chance? Do you perhaps think that alcohol or your private car ought to be banned on the grounds of the tremendous amount of undoubted harm these products cause?

This is a truly stupid suggestion which would be almost perfectly designed to plunge United Kingdom even further down the ranks of advanced countries than it already is. I’m deeply skeptical about these moral panics: I actually knows him young people whose lives are not totally dominated by staring at social media all the time. (And that is social media, not smartphones). Should we ban children from attempting to find out the bus time the train times via their phones? This actually aids their independence. Yes there are some problems, let’s try and deal with him forensically not with absurd melodramatic gestures.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

I know it is a by-word for rushed, knee-jerk legislation in Have I Got News For You circles, but was the Dangerous Dogs Act really so bad? Does anyone really want Pit Bulls back in circulation? Does anyone not think a dog’s owners should be prosecuted if their dog is uncontrolled and attacks someone? Does anyone not think a dog that attacks an innocent human should be destroyed? The 1991 Act was used to ban the XL Bully breed recently which had become a bit of a menace. And tellingly the legislation hasn’t been repealed in 23 years and has been adopted by the devolved assemblies.
Likewise the Cones Hotline was the butt of many jokes but the hotline is still in use 22 years later, rebranded as the Highways Agency Information Line (0300 1235000) where you can report incidents on motorways, enquire about roadworks and, indeed, also report instances of where you believe contractors have left cones in place after work has been finished.
I think it is remarkable that the issue of children having smart phones has gone from being impossible to contemplate to potential legislation in what? Six months? Obviously the mechanisms need to be worked out but I think Miriam Cates should be applauded for driving it. (It might also save her from getting her P45).

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

You may well be able to report needless lines of cones blocking off motorway lanes when there is zero work being done (almost always the case) – but the damn things are still there (and more than ever). Except for on the excellent four lane wide section of the A1(M) adjacent to John Major’s village just north of Huntingdon (curiously, busier sections of the A1(M) further south are only two lanes wide).
Passing legislation is not the best route to cultural or behavioural change.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

How much worse might the cone situation be without a way for the public to report issues? How many more dog attacks might there be without the DDA?
Legislation does change culture and behaviour, often hand-in-hand with technology changes. A good example is the multiple pieces of legislation around smoking. I would argue that banning smoking in pubs did change behaviour and got many people to give up. But then so did the invention of nicotine patches and vaping.
I wouldn’t discount the power of legislation even if you favour less coercive means. Legislators gonna legislate. The trick is getting good legislators (or rather sacking bad ones).

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

I’m not against all dangerous dogs acts (in fact, I’m in favour if they actually work). I’m simply recalling the John Major era effort being a complete fiasco.
Have to admit you’re correct about smoking ! But we should also recall that the smoking ban was mainly about preventing harm to others (passive smoking). It was not a direct restriction on your right to choose what you do to yourself if no one else is harmed. I support the first type of legislation. But think we should try to avoid the second where possible.
If only there were some sort of Trip Advisor ranking system where we could grade legislators and identify and reward the good ones – and expose the bad …

Simon James
Simon James
1 month ago

Well, good luck, it’s worth a try. I think Jon Haidt is basically right on this. Trouble is, it’s not going to be enough to remove the phones, we’ve got to put something meaningful in the gap they will leave. Banning the phones will be the easy part; encouraging parents to allow their children to go out and play unsupervised is where the real work lies. And getting adults off their phones so they can be role models for how to give your undivided attention to other people.

Xaven Taner
Xaven Taner
1 month ago
Reply to  Simon James

Agreed, it’s somewhat contradictory to acknowledge the harms of social media only for children. The same corrosive forces are at work, and the effects are largely similar for adults. I’d like to see public information campaigns against the use of social media similar to those used against smoking. You shouldn’t be able to log-on to Twitter, Facebook, etc, without seeing messaging demonstrating the harms it causes. If it’s doing the damage they say to the mental health of the nation then this should be spearheaded by the Health Security Agency and backed up with appropriate legislation that will put the squeeze on the tech monopolies.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
1 month ago
Reply to  Xaven Taner

What, do you mean the equivalent of the horror pics on fag packets ? I wonder just what they might dream up ?

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
1 month ago
Reply to  Simon James

Children out unsupervised is not going to happen (in the UK at least) until knife crime is tackled. It’s a laudable aim of course.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago

Knife crime might be a problem in some inner-city areas of London, Birmingham, Manchester etc. But it isn’t a significant problem in the UK. My 11 year old daughter plays unsupervised away from home with friends or on her own and I have never thought that she might get stabbed. Britain is overwhelmingly safe for children. A bigger concern is road safety but even that is minor outside of cities.

Terry Raby
Terry Raby
1 month ago
Reply to  Simon James

The meanigful sustitute is phones that do not have internet connectivity. In this way, mums can call kids, kids can talk to each other etc.. I believe that Michaela school in London does precisely that – sells simple phones as a subsitute, locks up any smart phones the kids bring to school etc.. The first topic for discussion with parents about failing kids is his/her smartphone.

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
1 month ago
Reply to  Simon James

How young were the tech billionaires when they started playing with computers ?

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
1 month ago
Reply to  Simon James

Gosh guns are not banned yet >
Apparently the youth in Amerika have easy access.

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
1 month ago

Personally I would make sure that social media were not accessible to children. I don’t see how you can ban the sale of mobile phones to children. The only positive outcome would be that they would be unable (IN THEORY) to bring it to school,and that would be a GOOD thing.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
1 month ago

Personally I would make sure that social media were not accessible to children.

The obvious question here is, how?

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
1 month ago

I suppose you mandate the providers that they have to have an age limit.
Clearly it impossible to monitor, but if the message is being sent perception would change.
Anything that is even remotely for children or teenagers should NOT be monetized. That should kill it.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
1 month ago

There’s already a legal age limit of 13 on social media accounts in the USA, which has effectively become the policy everywhere else by default.
Doesn’t make any difference.

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
1 month ago

13 is not nearly enough. Demonetization on the other hand…

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
1 month ago

You can ban the sale of cigarettes, alcohol, knives, etc to children, so why no mobile phones?

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
1 month ago
Reply to  Hilary Easton

Because parents buy the phone, not children.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 month ago

A law to ban children buying phones won’t make a bean of difference when the phones the children have aren’t bought by them in the first place.

Pretty much every child with a phone has been given that phone by a parent, phones mostly bought and paid for by parents.

It is not fatalism to point out the glaringly obvious hole in an argument.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

It makes it a lot easier though for parents to withstand the pressure when the law is on their side. We saw during lockdown how much the state can influence behaviour if it really wants to.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

You are right, if parents want their kids to have a smart phone they would be able to buy them one, just as they could buy a packet of cigarettes for their 13 year old. Even if vendors were charged with checking the age of the primary user of a new phone or SIM card, the parent could just say the phone was for them. But if a ban was in place and a child at school is found browsing the internet on an iPhone, then the school would be in contact with the parents and it would be very embarrassing for them. It could even lead to a prosecution, like it might if a parent was funding their child’s Rothmans habit.
Ultimately you want to make it so the parents don’t want to give their children smart phones. If 77% of parents of primary school aged children don’t want their kids to have a smart phone but currently give in to their children’s demand because everyone else is doing so, I think such a ban could give them the excuse to do so.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

This is a proposal to ban children buying phones themselves when few do anyway. It is not a proposal to ban children using or carrying phones.

Most parents are actively part of the decision to give their children a phone: for perceived safety as well as old fashioned distraction.

What is being proposed is the writing of a law to discourage a behaviour not directly addressed by the law. This is bad law plain and simple. If the proposers have conviction and evidence on their side they should propose banning phone (app) use by children.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

I agree it is bad law as it is presented here. To be fair though, It isn’t really clear in this article or in the Telegraph article being linked to what the proposals are (indeed it could all just be hot air from the government).
On banning smart phones, in the Telegraph it does say:

Last month a poll found that most parents want the Government to ban smartphones for the under-16s. Some 83 per cent of parents with at least one child between four and 18 believed that smartphones are harmful to children.

About 58 per cent back a smartphone ban for under-16s, according to the poll of 2,496 parents in England. Among primary school parents, support for a ban for under-16s was 77 per cent.

Of course it is one thing to tell a pollster that you want a complete ban – presumably on possession – of smart phones to under 16s and supporting such a ban if it was actually brought in.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
1 month ago

Many new innovations bring unwanted consequences — motor cars killed thousands before roads were properly regulated — yet governments find ways (eventually) to act.

Its hard to take seriously any analysis of this issue which relies on such a ridiculous argument.
Motor cars still kill thousands despite government regulation. Road traffic accidents kill around 2,000 people/year in the UK alone, let alone worldwide, and seriously injure tens of thousands more. Then there is the impact of air pollution in the immediate locality, which in urban areas may contribute to more than twice as many further premature deaths (depending on where you stand on the evidence). Not even getting into the claims and counterclaims about the wider environmental impact of the internal combustion engine and associated industrial activities.
So at best we might say that government regulation mitigates the risks of motor cars and reduces the number of road accident deaths. And that’s great as far as it goes, but its a long way from claiming that the problem is fixed by regulation.
The only way to stop deaths by motor cars completely would be to ban motor vehicles and rigorously enforce the ban. We don’t for a number of reasons: mainly because the economic consequences would likely outweigh the benefits; because it would be an unwarranted intrusion on personal freedom; and because it would require draconian state action to even attempt to enforce – which would likely be impossible anyway.
So back to banning mobile phones. The question is not just whether they potentially cause harm, it is also what the relative consequences of a ban would be, whether its right for the state to intercede in personal freedom and if so to what extent, and whether such a ban would be practically enforceable.
As a parent of teenagers my position has always been that unless you’re Amish or similar, kids are going to grow up in a technology dominated world whether we like it or not. Some tech is of benefit to them and other tech not so much. So trying to teach children to use technology responsibility is on balance better than trying to enforce abstinence, in my view.
I’m also convinced, based on the hopeless efforts of their school to enforce their own rules on mobile phone use during the school day, that any such ban would be unenforceable. Children typically don’t buy their own phones anyway and there are no credible sanctions I can think of which will deter parents who want to from setting up social media accounts for their kids.
In my view proposals for a smartphone ban for children are unworkable and potentially counterproductive if we end up denying kids the opportunity to learn how to use tech safely because we’re so worried about the risks.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 month ago

Most under-16s don’t buy smartphones. They have them bought for them. Unless it is made illegal to buy a smartphone for an U16, the proposed ban will be ineffective.

Hilary Easton
Hilary Easton
1 month ago

It would have to include buying a phone for U16, and to be effective there would have to be a ban on children using them outside the home, perhaps. Dumb phones would become the norm for children and they would eventually get used to it and stop pestering their parents to buy smart ones.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
1 month ago

We don’t typically sell smart phones to children anyway. We sell them to their parents, who then hand them over to the kids and tell them to go be quiet and not interrupt their hot yoga session.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 month ago

The author says ‘…motor cars killed thousands before roads were properly regulated’; an interesting point, but incomplete. After assuming that road design could be tweaked to fix the problem, people realized that it was actually the cars that were killing their occupants. So seat belts, reinforced roofs, air bags, etc. were introduced and were much more successful at saving lives.
So it could be that social media is only the most obvious culprit and that some other effect is causing harm, too. Personally I think that too much time looking at screens is just not healthy, for the body or the soul. I’d love to see an experiment where people got everthing in black and white. It’s much less hypnotic, less of an attention trap.
(In fact, can anyone please tell me how to set my Windows 11 to wipe out the colors?)

Mark HumanMode
Mark HumanMode
1 month ago

And here’s why you’re wrong Miriam: 1) your refutation of the critics doesn’t deal with the essence of the criticism, you only recite the problem in new ways (few people dispute the problem). 2) Bans NEVER work. You must deal with the drivers behind problems, not their symptoms. The drivers are cultural – change that and we will get on top of the problems of social media. That’s hard, and will take time, but will work. The ban is simple, but won’t work.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago

Is this displacement activity by a member of the party which has totally failed to control the seemingly simple problem of preventing illegal migrants typically on rubber dinghies turning up on our shores? Apparently now the government will effectively tackle some of the biggest corporations on the globe, some of them Chinese!. Don’t make me laugh!

I am very skeptical about the terrible evils or smart phones (which seems rather too close to the endless moral panics and doom-mongering that he’s so fashionable today on all sides of politics). Shall we adults chuck ours away as well? And if not, why not?

But in any case at least the Big Tech companies are operated competently by very smart people, which is more than can be said for most members of the government and Parliament, who have a terribly narrow base, and on many issues are completely clueless.