Is it time to ban UK teens from using smartphones?

The UK’s Sun newspaper has reported that campaign group UsforThem is calling on UK under 16s to be banned from using smartphones. The campaign is backed by Katharine Birbalsingh, the government’s former social mobility tsar.  

Birbalsingh argues that children are already banned from having sex, smoking, drinking, driving and watching some types of content. “Yet we make access to these and much worse via the smartphone so easy, done without parental knowledge, not to mention how phones break their brains,” she added.

The campaign calls for a tobacco-style regulatory framework. This would place a duty of care on manufacturers, suppliers and telcos to prove their products and services are safe for children.

Smartphones negatively affect kids’ behaviour

Psychologist Dr Álvaro Bilbao believes smartphones affect children’s attention spans. He says they lead to psychological and behavioural problems, including attention deficit disorder, depresson and addiction problems.

Screen time should be severely limited for children under six, he argues. “Children who are in regular contact with mobile phone screens, tablets or computers are more irritable and have worse attention, memory and concentration than those who do not use them.”

His book ‘Understanding Your Child’s Brain’, aims to help parents decide how they should approach the issue.

Former No10 policy chief Steve Hilton called for a smartphone ban for under-16s in 2016. He said at the time: “Devices have brought entertainment and education, but they’ve also erased the boundaries between the child and adult worlds. We need to better police the border between children and technology, because unconstrained access to the internet prematurely exposes children to unhealthy sexual norms and disturbs normal social interactions.”

Is the risk exaggerated?

Although there have been regular concerns expressed about how smartphones could affect child development, current evidence doesn’t appear to support these fears.

In 2020, university professors Candice Odgers and Michaeline Jensen conducted a metastudy that examined 40 previous studies investigating how smartphone use is related to depression and anxiety amongst teenagers.

The conclusion? Any link is small, and it’s not clear whether it’s causal.

The researchers found that there have been conflicting associations between smartphone and social-media use and mental health issues. The most recent and rigorous studies don’t offer a way to distinguish cause-and-effect, they said. This means they are unlikely to be of either clinical or practical significance.

Another metastudy of 80 papers by Cambridge University researcher Amy Orben found similar results. Any link was small, weak and cause-and-effect were unclear, she concluded.

A study by Jeff Hancock, the founder of the Stanford Social Media Lab, reached similar conclusions.

Is the smartphone debate just a liberal middle-class hobbyhorse?

Mobiles may make you fat if you spend too much time staring at a screen rather than running around with your friends. Social media may expose you to toxic online interactions and ideas. But let’s be honest. The problem isn’t the screen itself but the content. And this isn’t the first time technology has been demonised.

Smartphones may have become the bogeymen of self-appointed middle class reformers. But in this respect they’re simply taking over the role vacated by televisions. Back in the 70s, 80s and 90s we were routinely informed that TVs would rot our children’s brains. Those children are now adults, and none the worse for being telly addicts.

Banning smartphones would disproportionately affect the poor

What these largely privileged liberal activists overlook is that for many children the phone is a gateway to information and interaction they wouldn’t otherwise have. It gives them access to resources that wealthier families can afford to provide in an offline format.

Rich families can take their kids to watch the ballet, the opera, their favourite band or a play at the local theatre. Poor children don’t have these options.

It’s smells of abject snobbery to suggest that certain forms of content (Hamlet or Tosca) are superior for brain growth. Or that it’s better to watch Placido Domingo in concert rather than free on YouTube. When the choice facing poor children is free on YouTube or nothing.

And let’s not overlook the fact that the riches of world literature and the entire history of human knowledge are now available online. The full texts of all out-of-copyright books are available for free. Great literature at our fingertips that many couldn’t otherwise afford to read. While on YouTube, and diverse other websites, you can learn everything from Latin to brioche knitting. Never has so much information been available to so many people. And the gateway to these intellectual riches is the smartphone.

A more balanced approach is needed

It’s true there are lies, conspiracies and toxic people online. But printed books are not free from error, newspapers are full of dubious stories, and toxic people can be found in town centres and schools, not just online forums.

Gaming may build reactions and hand-eye co-ordination but increase aggression in (certain) children. Too much short-form and poor quality content may decrease teenagers’ attention spans. Too much time online affects eyesight.

In short, a more nuanced approach is required. Smartphones present both benefits and problems. Children are not all the same, nor do they all access the same content, or behave or react in the same way.

Omnisperience’s view

Omnisperience believes there’s no need to prise mobiles out of the hands of UK teens just yet.

As a society we don’t ban cars – even though they’re responsible for huge numbers of injuries and deaths. Instead, we need to figure out how to make both cars, and online behaviour, safer. We also need to be mindful of the impact banning smartphones would have on the less privileged. How will it affect poorer children who simply don’t have access to the resources available to, and advocated by, the wealthy?

Harking back to some bucolic existence is all very well for the well off. After all, they weren’t the ones toiling in the fields. Access to information has always been the barrier holding the poor back and a substantial contributor to their poverty. You can’t help but suspect that’s the whole point. The whole debate isn’t evidence based, but reeks of snobbery and middle-class fears around preserving their educational advantages. You’re not a better person because you read a physical rather than a digital book.

And that’s precisely why such a black and white view of technology doesn’t have a role in the HD era.