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4 Policy Prescriptions For Turning Little Smartphone Zombies Into Happy, Healthy Kids

Kids are more anxious and depressed than ever, and this is tied to the rise of smartphone use during their formative years.

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Smartphones are so bad for kids that even far-left Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom just called for them to be banned from schools.

This follows the emergence of cell phone use as a big issue of our time, with the promotion of kids’ mental health tied to the subtraction of the smartphone. The consequences of ubiquitous smartphone use in childhood are vast and unfolding. Yet, given new research and data, we know definitively that our youth are more anxious and depressed than ever, and this is tied to the rise of smartphone use during their years of formation and growth. 

Many leaders are sounding the alarm on the deficiencies of American children in their interactions with the world. New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has rightly called this phenomenon “the great rewiring of childhood.” For most kids today, childhood is less about running, playing, and feeling the stuff of the Earth; it is now more about information transmission and faux socialization through an inadequate medium, the smartphone. 

Haidt’s new book, The Anxious Generation, reveals how children are introduced to reality through their phones. In doing so, they miss out on developing contact with the real world through touch, taste, smell, and sometimes even sound. The fifth sense, sight, is only given a 2-D plane and is therefore stripped from within of its fullness too. Hence, everything through a smartphone presented to the senses is deficient in representing real things. This harms children’s ability to grow and develop as embodied, rational creatures.   

Earlier in May, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders called on all governors to engage in policymaking that responds to the findings in Haidt’s book. Shortly after, Texas House Rep. Ellen Troxclair declared she would file a bill to remove smartphones from Texas schools. As noted, Gov. Gavin Newsom also called to remove smartphones from schools. The issue of smartphone use among American youth appears to be a long overdue policy issue and has bicoastal and bipartisan attraction.  

Wisdom traditions from Aristotle yield the insight that the five senses are essential for acquiring knowledge, as they represent the only means through which any knowledge can come to a person. Think about it: What can you do to acquire anything that does not use your senses? This has been obvious to inquisitive thinkers for millennia but bears recollection anew. Without this embodied experience, the person spiritually undergoes something analogous to muscle atrophy, where the lack of use leads to a loss. When kids find themselves in front of screens for at times even eight hours a day, with five of those hours on a smartphone, the spiritual loss we have long intuited is now clearly reflected in isolated data. It shows a gut-wrenching rise in anxiety and depression. 

In looking to taper smartphone use among children, I don’t advocate that we attempt to return to a time that is neither possible nor desirable. To be sure, modern technology is a marvelous tool. We are the forerunners in a technological age that has ushered in unprecedented wealth, power, and pseudo-connectivity.

The amount of change and the rapidity with which it has occurred cannot be overstated. The iPhone has 100,000 times more computing power than the computer that allowed the astronauts of Apollo 11 to land on the moon just 50 years ago. Additionally, the barrier to entry to access this technology has been pushed down to a level where, dare I say, every American can and generally does access it. In living through this age of ubiquitous smartphone tech, it can be easy to forget what once was and what has been lost.  

While individual parents can and do moderate screen time to great effect, I believe new findings on mental health emphasize the need to regulate smartphones like the way we regulate alcohol. The abundance of smartphone use is analogous to giving kids a steady diet of Fruity Pebbles: It’s not healthy. It’s time to change that, and I propose we debate several policy prescriptions to change the typical trajectory.

1. Ban the purchase of a smartphone for anyone under 16.

2. Restrict the use of social media sites to prohibit all children under 16, unless parental consent is given.  

3. Restrict the use of cell phones on school premises.  

4. Require social media apps to display a disclaimer regarding the risk of depression and anxiety tied to using the application. 

Although these policy prescriptions have enjoyed a rapid rise in support, this work will be met with more hostility and pushback than may be initially thought. Big Tech is a cookie monster that wants to eat all the cookies. In this case, the cookies are revenue monetized from screen time that is tied to data and advertisements. From tech giants’ distant vantage point, kids can be reduced to a cog in a machine that increases their bottom line. Leaders will need to intervene if we’re ever going to fix the mental health mess our kids are being launched into.  


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