Governments all over the world regulate the minimum age for drinking and smoking. These laws are in place to protect children and teens—whether from addiction or accidents—at a time when their brains are still developing. Most don’t bat an eye at these laws because they recognize the societal benefit of guarding our children.
Tim Farnum, a Colorado father and board-certified anesthesiologist, wants to extend similar limits to cellphones—specifically smartphones. Farnum and his non-profit, Parents Against Underage Smartphones (PAUS), have proposed a ballot initiative that would prohibit retailers from selling smartphones that are intended for use by children under 13.
Farnum started researching the impact of smartphones on developing brains after his two sons, eleven and thirteen, got smartphones for the first time. Farnum told the Washington Post that before his sons received smartphones, they were “energetic and outgoing,” but constant access to technology and social media made them increasingly moody.
“They never left their bedrooms, and when he tried to take away the phones, one of Farnum’s sons launched into a temper tantrum that the dad described as equivalent to the withdrawals of a crack addict,” writes Katie Mettler for the Washington Post.
Psychology Today reports that numerous studies connect overexposure to electronic media usage and delayed cognitive development. Children addicted to electronics show decreased abilities to focus, to give others their full attention, and to intuit others attitudes and feelings.
Psychology Today also points to the same connection between smartphone usage among pre-teens and the reclusive behavior that Farnum saw in his sons. Spending time with an electronic rather than with people during a time when the brain is developing can be detrimental to socialization. It teaches children that “all actions have an immediate effect, and all stimuli elicit a quick response,” writes Psychology Today, but real-world interactions aren’t like that.
When children win a game on their phone or get a like on social media, the brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which Psychology Today explains is “the key component in our reward system that is associated with feelings of pleasure.” In some cases, children become addicted to those “dopamine hits,” and they start to prefer the immediate gratification of media over real-world interactions.
After reading the negative effects of electronic usage and seeing the impact on his children, Farnum told the Washington Post that he decided someone had to do something. If it passes, Farnum’s ballot initiative no. 29 would require retailers to ask about the age of the primary user before selling a smartphone. Each month, electronic retailers would submit reports that showed their adherence. If they did violate the prohibition, the first violation would incur a warning while the second would incur a $500—each subsequent violation would double the fine.
There has been a range of responses to Farnum’s proposal. Some might point out the irony of Colorado allowing recreational marijuana but restricting smartphone usage. However, many parent and grandparents laud his drive to protect children because they have seen the impact of technology on their own children’s mood and behaviors. Farnum, who says he’s a Libertarian, pushes back against these accusations. Making a comparison between smartphones, smoking, and alcohol, and even watching pornography, Farnum argues, “We have age restrictions on all those things because they’re harmful to kids. This is no different, in my opinion.”
Even if his proposal doesn’t pass, Farnum hopes that it will increase awareness of the dangers of premature screen time. In the meantime, he has taken the smartphones away from his sons and seen a marked improvement in their behavior—they’re laughing, playing outside just like children should, and even enjoying reading.
Whether or not the government should be involved in limiting electronics is up for debate, but few would disagree that it’s healthier—physically and emotionally—for a child to be outside playing with friends rather than sitting in corner glued to a screen.