Nationally Banning Phones From Youth – Is This a Good Idea?

May 8, 2024

We at The White Hatter have seen considerable discussion about families raising the age and delaying when young people are given access to phones. If there were a legal prohibition on youth owning phones, could this be an effective strategy in reducing online harms?

The greatest challenge in delaying phone access for children lies in social norms and economic pressures. Determining the appropriate age for a young person to access devices and the internet is often a family decision, influenced by external factors. The concept of “Keeping up with the Joneses” illustrates this well, as families may feel compelled to conform to prevailing trends within their community. For instance, if every family in a neighbourhood provides their children with phones by sixth grade, while your family opts to wait until high school, it could lead to social and practical challenges.

A recent assertion raised by a parent prompted us to consider the issue further. It was suggested that just as there are laws restricting driving until a certain age and requiring licensing, why not enact similar regulations regarding youth phone usage? If a child is not allowed to have a device by law, this would then remove any family conflict and equalize social norms.

Let’s for a moment explore whether the frameworks applied to cars could be applied to phones, effectively banning them for kids. A device ban akin to those applied to cars is intriguing, considering that website bans without digital government IDs have proven ineffective and pose greater legal challenges than banning phones for children. However, our experience suggests that both ends of the political spectrum in North America are opposed to such extensive government control over internet activities, anticipating numerous legal battles. Additionally, efforts to ban certain websites, like those sharing adult content, have often resulted in increased usage of less popular sources, or the use of VPNs to circumvent restrictions (1).

The only notable success in internet-level banning has been seen in China with its real-name system and outlawing of VPNs, aimed at controlling online activity. However, this approach raises significant concerns about freedom of expression and is not widely supported in North American culture.

Several challenges must be addressed for a youth phone ban to be effective:

  1. Defining the scope of the phone ban: Simply banning phones may not effectively address proposed harms, as the functionalities of a phone are replicable on a tablet or computer. The main distinction lies in portability and cellular connectivity. While the inconvenience of using a laptop in public may reduce exposure to harmful content, the potential for harm remains.
  2. Political reluctance: Politicians and political parties may be hesitant to support such measures due to the associated risks, particularly in terms of potential backlash from future voters. Implementing regulations that take away privileges enjoyed by neighbouring jurisdictions could breed resentment among the affected generation when they come of voting age.
  3. Will a ban really eliminate phones? Alcohol and vaping are age-regulated, yet there remains a constant challenge of youth accessing and using these products. Plus, a tablet is basically just a larger screen phone, some even have cellular SIM capabilities.
  4. Legal challenges: We will leave this to our legal friends, but we foresee youth rights advocacy groups launching legal claims against such a ban. We could also see parents’ rights advocacy groups launching legal claims about having government control over their agency over their child.

So, implementing a phone ban would not entirely mitigate the associated harms. The next step might involve banning youth from using any devices or accessing the internet. However, similar to defining the scope of the phone ban, determining what constitutes a “device” presents challenges. Additionally, considerations must be made for exceptions, such as educational purposes. The more exceptions are introduced, the greater the potential for loopholes, rendering the ban ineffective.

While the idea of implementing a nationwide ban on phones for kids presents intriguing possibilities to reduce harms, akin to regulating car usage, there are many challenges for success. While we can see such a ban can reduce the amount of exposure to harm by removing mobile access, once settled and stationary on a different device, nothing changes.

Digital Food For Thought

The White Hatter



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