There’s a good chance you’re reading this on your smartphone. If so, you likely recognize the prevalence and importance of technology in today’s world. One non-profit advocacy group, Parents Against Underage Smartphones (PAUS), sees this prevalence as a problem so dangerous that children must be protected from it. PAUS is gathering signatures for Initiative 164, a measure that would ban the sale of smartphones to or on behalf of any child under 13 in Colorado. If ultimately approved by voters in November, the law would require smartphone retailers to verify the identification and age of a smartphone’s intended primary user before selling it.
PAUS’s website, tiled with images of Mel Gibson in Braveheart, claims preteen overconsumption of technology leads to a host of problems, including underage pornography usage, exposure to predators, sexting and the self-creation of child pornography, and social alienation. These are clearly valid concerns, but this initiative isn’t the solution. As written, 164 is vague, unenforceable, and usurps parental rights. If passed, it would create a smartphone black market and incentivize otherwise responsible, law-abiding parents to circumvent the law.
To start, the initiative’s technological definitions are far too vague and facilitate overregulation. The initiative distinguishes “smartphones” from “cellular phones,” defining the former as “a mobile phone that performs many of the functions of a personal computer” and “any hand held device with mobile internet connectivity or mobile data connectivity.” However, it does not target “cellular” (what some may call “dumb”) phones— an important concession to those who want their child to remain a phone call away.
The problem with this definition is that virtually no phone exists that is just a phone. A testimonial on PAUS’s website even admits this: “there are no phones to buy, [sic] that can only be used as a phone.” Phones that people consider “dumb” still have mobile data connectivity and can run downloaded applications—features 164 considers “smart.” Granted, you won’t be Snapchatting or tweeting on your flip phone, but the point remains. If 164 becomes law, there will be few “cellular” phones in the market, if any, that comply with its language.
Even if we assume 164 would allow an adequate number of “cellular” phones in the market for preteens, its impact on PAUS’s targeted behaviors is questionable. Resourceful pre-teens can get around 164 with “dumb” cellular phones or the tablets and computers, which the initiative leaves untouched. Sexting, for example, can still occur with standard cellular messaging, and social media will remain accessible on alternate devices.
On the issue of parental rights, PAUS can’t seem to make up its mind. “It absolutely is a parents [sic] right to choose how to raise their child,” its website concedes, before contradicting, “but it is also our American parents [sic] right to form an alliance together and try to make manufacturers and service providers accountable for the mess they have created.”
After shifting parental responsibility to service providers and manufacturers, PAUS compares the smartphone sale ban to age limits on alcohol: “It is a parents [sic] right to give a child a small glass of wine with dinner, but it is not acceptable to have children walk into liquor stores and purchase alcohol, nor is it acceptable for parents to get their children drunk.”
Explication of this comparison actually counters PAUS’s position. The enforceability issues and widespread violation of alcohol age limits demonstrates why a similar ban on smartphones will be impotent and increase black market activities. Parents who are okay with their preteen owning a smartphone can procure one for them—either by lying to a retailer or through the hand-me-down process— without risk to themselves.
Parents who truly do not want their preteen using a smartphone will act accordingly— as parents can now —and not purchase one. In fact, 164 would be even weaker than alcohol laws because it only punishes disobeying retailers, not parents or older children who would purchase phones as surrogates or otherwise violate the spirit of the initiative. This insertion of the state is apparently intended not to keep a smartphone from a twelve-year old’s hands, but to supplant individual parents’ decisions with a collective one.
PAUS’s concerns are not ill-founded, but a paternalistic regulatory scheme is not an effective or moral way to curb technology overload. The smallest scale regulation—that of a parent—is the most effective way to do it and the only way to respect the rights that parents exclusively hold over their kids.
PAUS links parental control software on their website to help parents regulate their kids’ internet browsing. If only we had the kind of parental control software that keeps overreaching nannies from realizing their authoritarian political ends.
Trevor Vogel is a Future Leaders intern at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver. He attends Hillsdale College and intends to study economics and mathematics.
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