Rod Liddle Rod Liddle

Ban smartphones for kids!

I understand the allure of smartphones, if you’re the parent of an adolescent (or younger) moron – which I believe many of you are.

You have booked a nice table for Sunday lunch and would appreciate not having to engage your offspring in a dialogue of inanities regarding the things which most concern them at the present time: the wickedness of Great Britain, historically and indeed today; the wickedness of the generation which brought them into the world; their debilitating and unsightly skin issues; their plans for transitioning; their fear that by the time they are 20 they will not be able to afford to buy a flat in Belgravia solely because of aforesaid wickedness; the fascinating evidence they saw on YouTube about Israel, global warming and the Freemasons; why it’s right to cancel people who disagree with them about stuff; why their stipend is laughably insufficient; why working for a living serves only to hasten the death of the polar bears; why Hamas has a bloody good point and so on, and so on, interminably and yet also incredibly briefly on each issue because they have entirely lost the power of concentration and can recall only 7.6 seconds of any salient argument, as a consequence of their 24-hour phone usage.

A smartphone is the post-toddler equivalent of a dummy. It occupies them for entire days at a time

Far easier and more convivial simply to nod in assent when they take out their devices and thoroughly enjoy your lunch while they loll, slack-jawed, eyes glazed, posting insulting imbecilities on Snapchat. Or whatevs.

The smartphone debate throws up interesting allegiances and enmities which are, to my mind, more reflective of the political divide in this country than almost any other issue. In short, if you are a libertarian you are against anything which would restrict an individual’s freedom to access whatever the hell he, or she, wishes to access – always bearing in mind the maxim caveat emptor, especially when, later, they kill themselves.

I get that argument, it has some force – but I do not agree with it. I have never signed up to the libertarian agenda, instead believing that governments have a duty to protect those who have little or no power and that huge multi-billion-dollar high-tech corporations may not always have, as their first priority, the wellbeing of the human race. For some time I’ve been a member of a cross-party group of MPs, parents, scribblers etc, which was set up to agitate for greater controls on smartphone use by children (by which I mean people under 16 years of age), beginning with a total ban in schools but by no means ending there.

Some have come to this view as a consequence of the mental-health implications for so many of the children concerned, some justifiably worried about the access to odious pornography afforded to people too young to assimilate it. Others on the left worry about the baleful influence of the Silicon Valley companies, while many on the right are aghast at the increasing inability of children to concentrate, to think for themselves, engendered by the fleeting cornucopia of the internet – a place where nothing has any depth, only an infinity of width.

As a Social Democrat I am lucky that I am able to concur with pretty much all of these objections to smartphones for kids, which is why the SDP has been heavily involved right from the start. I had thought that this would be a long fight – and yet I find that we are pushing at a door which is already blowing wide open. The evidence is all there – the problem is getting the two main parties to adopt policies which might address that evidence but annoy ‘time-poor’ and weary parents, and those who think that we are either Luddites or saddoes who yearn for the 1970s.

My opening paragraph was a little tongue in cheek, but only a little – and it gets to what is the nub of the issue for me. We give smartphones to our kids for our benefit, not for theirs. It is the post-toddler equivalent of a dummy. It occupies them, often for entire days at a time, and we are thus relieved of the task of either engaging with them or actually, y’know, parenting them. That £1,000-plus smartphone, then, is a gift of neglect masquerading as benevolence. Even if the kids navigate their way through the cyber-hell of bullying, spite, vituperation and explicit porn, they will still cop it because their abilities to concentrate on any issue at hand reduce with every hour that they spend online.

But then so many of the developments we have seen over the past 40 or 50 years have been to the detriment of the children. The divorce laws, for example, which ensured that there would be a huge increase in the number of children raised in one-parent families (the worst of all outcomes for the children). Families in which both parents work and have little time left over for their children. The increase in paid-for childcare, enabling parents to park their brats while they go off to work: the longer a kid spends in childcare, the less fortuitous his or her later development, according to the stats.

Many of these developments are considered ‘progressive’, of course – and in some ways they are. I am not arguing that women shouldn’t go out to work, or that we should have no free childcare. But we blithely ignore the unintended consequences, all of which devolve down to the children. They have not been made better off, this past half a century or so. They are simultaneously indulged financially by parents and the state – and neglected. Meanwhile we worry endlessly about their safety and yet are resistant to measures which might give them greater security because that would impinge on our freedoms. With kids, we kid ourselves that they are happy. The evidence suggests overwhelmingly that they are not.

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