Why the state shouldn’t ban smartphones for teens

It should be up to parents to look out for their kids online.

Georgia L Gilholy

Topics Politics Science & Tech UK

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Calls for the government to regulate under-16s’ use of smartphones have been growing over the past few weeks.

A fortnight ago, Conservative MP Miriam Cates mooted a total ban on smartphones and social media for all young people. Speaking in parliament, she said that a smartphone ban would help to combat a rise in ‘children addicted to pornography’.

This weekend, Esther Ghey, the mother of murdered teenager Brianna Ghey, added her voice to the clamour for smartphone regulation. She is calling for under-16s to be blocked from accessing all social-media apps, and for any ‘inappropriate’ searches they might make to be flagged up on parents’ phones. This, she said, might have saved Brianna’s life.

Children’s use of smartphones and social media, and their ability to access disturbing material, do pose significant problems for us as a society. Some young people are watching extreme pornography, while others are cultivating dark or self-destructive obsessions in certain online forums. Certainly, in the case of Brianna’s teenage killers, Scarlett Jenkinson and Eddie Ratcliffe, their engagement with gruesome online material fed their violent fantasies.

So these calls to regulate under-16s’ smartphone usage are no doubt well-intentioned. But they should still be resisted.

The question here is not whether children should have access to social media or be free to search the internet as they please. The question is who should be making those decisions. The ultimate responsibility for decisions about children’s online activity should really rest with parents, not the state.

And that’s the big problem with these calls for more regulation. Any new legislation would give responsibility for children’s online behaviour to the government. It would increase the state’s interference in family affairs. It would undermine parents’ authority and further erode their ability to judge what is in the best interests of their own children.

Esther Ghey’s call for state-mandated software to flag up ‘inappropriate’ material raises the same problems. After all, who exactly would decide what constitutes inappropriate content? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the category of ‘inappropriate’ could expand to political content. After all, given the well-known biases now permeating the institutions of the British state, from schools to the civil service, ‘inappropriate’ could mean gender-critical content, or material challenging critical race theory. In contrast, an app with these biases is unlikely to flag up content promoting, say, gender transitioning, even though this would likely alarm many ordinary parents.

If parents are worried about what their kids are doing online, then they need to step up. They can start to regulate their children’s smartphone use themselves. They can even stop them from having a smartphone at all if they want to. They don’t need the government to do any of this for them.

Indeed, it’s already possible for parents to set up their own internet safety filters across all devices used by their kids. Perhaps if we’re serious about addressing young people’s problematic online activity, we should be encouraging parents to be technologically literate, not inviting the state ever further into family life.

In the wake of a horrific tragedy like the murder of Brianna Ghey, it is always tempting to call for new rules and laws. But hastily conceived smartphone regulation is likely to create more problems than it would solve. We need to encourage parents to take more responsibility for their children’s online behaviour, not less.

Georgia L Gilholy is a freelance journalist living in London.

Picture by: Cottonbro studio / Pexels.

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Topics Politics Science & Tech UK


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