Last year, Colorado father-of-five Tim Farnum gave his two youngest sons smartphones—and immediately regretted it. But he didn’t just take the phones away; he took the extra steps of forming a nonprofit called “Parents Against Underage Smartphones,” or PAUS, and drafting the nation’s first proposed measure that would ban smartphone use among preteens.
The proposed measure, ballot initiative No. 29, would make it illegal in Colorado for mobile-phone retailers to sell smartphones to children under the age of 13 or to any person who intends to provide the phone (wholly or partially) to someone under the age of 13. Phone retailers would have to submit monthly reports to the Colorado Department of Revenue showing compliance. Those who fail to adhere would face a warning, then a $500 fine, if the proposal passes.
The proposed ballot measure’s language has been approved by state officials, but PAUS will have to get more than 100,000 signatures to get No. 29 on the ballot in the fall of 2018.
Farnum, a Denver-area anesthesiologist, told the Washington Post, that he had “overwhelming” support from parents. On the other hand, the Coloradoan reports, there’s already no shortage of opposition to the idea, too.
Farnum said he was compelled to take the dramatic steps to limit smartphone use among youths after seeing the effects on his sons, now 11 and 13. He tells the Post that after smartphone use, his happy, active kids became reclusive and moody. When he first threatened to take the smartphones away, he likened their angry reaction to that of drug addicts going through withdrawal. He then did his own research into the subject, which further convinced him of the potential negative effects of the phones.
On the PAUS website, a banner image flashes dramatic and dark warnings of kids being “damaged” by the “electric pacifiers.” The site suggests smartphone use leads to poor communication skills and behavioral problems in early childhood. It also implies that smartphone use causes ADHD despite a lack of evidence. The banner warnings go on to suggest smartphone use leads to mental health issues, bullying, addiction-like behavior, and suicide later in childhood. Boys will give up sports and activity when smartphones introduce them to gaming, and girls will have distorted body images, the site suggests. And, of course, nearly all children will end up seeing and probably producing their own pornography.
Farnum fits smartphone use into the same category as smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, which have age-restrictions.
Critics disagree, saying the measure is a government overstep. Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, told the Coloradoan:
Frankly, I think it should remain a family matter. I know there have been different proposals out there regarding the Internet and putting filters on websites that might put kids at risk. I think ultimately, this comes down to parents… making sure their kids are not putting themselves at risk.
Also, nearly all of the claims on PAUS’ website are not supported by data. For one thing, most of the complaints are connected with Internet or social media use, not smartphone use exclusively. While experts, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend very limited screen time for children under two, older kids are fine to use smartphones and other devices, and they can benefit from educational media. For kids older than six, the AAP says screens are fine as long as there are limits on use and that use doesn’t interfere with other positive activities, such as sleeping and being active.
When contacted by Ars, the AAP did not have a response to the proposed ballot measure, and a spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Farnum also was not immediately available for comment.