Tim Farnum, an anesthesiologist, and father of five is lobbying the passage of a Colorado state law that would ban the sale of smartphones to kids under the age of 13. His ostensible goal, which he’s pursuing under the auspices of the nonprofit Parents Against Underage Smartphones, is to create a retail ban that would, realistically, have little effect given that parents generally buy phones for their children. But there’s clearly something else beneath this unlikely and likely ineffective piece of advocacy. What Farnum is doing is an attempt to get porn out of the hands of kids and get kids back outdoors to play, which sounds great, but it just seems personal.
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“In January, I started having trouble with my boys,” says Farnum. “I would not have gotten my kids phones, but my ex-wife went ahead and gave them phones. All of a sudden, instead of going out to the yard and playing ball, it became a struggle.”
Farnum’s sons are 13 and 11 and they’re no longer in possessions of smartphones, but Farnum says the damage is done. He claims one of his children started watching pornography almost immediately, which led to both going cold turkey and the creation of a family policy that Farnum wants to see become Colorado law.
“My one son had to take a full technology vacation,” recalls Farnum. “He ended up getting straight A’s in school and started enjoying books. When you pull them off, it’s pretty dramatic.”
Still, there’s the question of why Farnum wants state-sponsorship for his parenting strategy. The PAUS website has an entire page dedicated to links to other organizations (news, non-profit, government) documenting the potential harm of smartphone use from addiction to suicide to socialization struggles. But Farnum keeps coming back to pornography.
“In all 50 states, a 6-year-old can walk into a Walmart and buy a phone and an activation card and get all the unlimited pornography they want and talk to pedophiles all over the world,” he says. “That seems crazy, right? That shouldn’t be. There’s really no benefit. In that sense, this is going to be like seatbelts or any other age restriction that we have.”
The obvious repost to this line of argumentation is that any 6-year-old with the cash on hand to buy a phone and the wherewithal to make it work, much lest stream dirty movies, would be exceptional indeed. Farnum also admits the internet started making pornography broadly viewable by eager kids back in the nineties. Smartphones just sped everything up. (Also, PornHub.)
Still, Farnum has some decent talking points. There have been various links and individual cases of teenagers becoming addicted to their smartphones. And studies have linked delays in speech development to excessive screen time use in toddlers. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician specializing in child development, agrees that damage can be real and causation can be demonstrable. However, she urges education not legislated elimination.
“We need to teach children how to use these as tools that will serve our human values and not control us all the time,” says Radesky. “The concern is if it starts displacing other important activities like outdoor play, sports or time with the family–these are the social and emotional skills that will lead to school success–and the media will not teach those tools as well as human interaction would.”
Notably, the bigger concern when it comes to smartphones may be adult behavior. Recent studies, which have yet to garner massive coverage, demonstrate that parental distraction can be a shortcut to behavioral issues.
For now, Farnum needs to collect 100,000 signatures to get his proposition on the ballot by fall 2018. Despite having garnered a fair amount of press for his quixotic charge, he’s not there yet and he doesn’t really have a plan for what happens if he hits that number.
“I haven’t really thought through where to go from there,” he says. “I felt inspired initially, but I don’t know where this road leads. At least there are people talking about it.”
That response is a little troublesome because smartphone use among children is a serious problem and PAUS has presented Luddism as a solution, which may detract from a more serious conversation about mitigating phone time and, unrelatedly, about the consumption of pornography by boys. Farnum, who seems to resent his kids’ desire to work in tech (“That’s what kids want to do,” he says. “But what’s the benefit? I don’t know”), may distract from the work being done by people like Radesky, who are endeavoring to help parents manage very early adopters.
The problem is real, but Farnum may be more symptom than cure.
“Every time there’s a disruptive technology, people get uncomfortable especially when it comes to young children,” says Radesky. “There’s a lot of cultural emphasis on our society for early childhood to be an important time to setting children on a successful life trajectory, but it tends to be where we focus all of our anxiety.”