Tim Farnum, Denver-area dad of five and anesthesiologist, is pushing for a new ballot measure in Colorado to stop the sale of smartphones to children younger than 13, or realistically, to parents who buy smartphones intended for their kids. If passed, Initiative 29 would be the first in the country to establish legal limits on buying smartphones for children.
Farnum's nonprofit group, Parents Against Underage Smartphones (PAUS), wants to require retailers to ask customers about the age of the smartphone's intended primary user. Retailers must also submit monthly reports to the Colorado Department of Revenue as verification that they adhered to the requirement. Those who do sell a smartphone for use by kids could be fined $500 after a warning.
Colorado officials have recently cleared the language of the initiative, but it will now need about 300,000 voter signatures to make it onto the 2018 ballot.
According to a report by Influence Central, the average for a child getting their first smartphone is around 10 years old. Another study presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies in 2015 showed that most kids have used mobile devices by age 2. These numbers aren't entirely surprising. We see children with smartphones everywhere—on planes and buses, and in restaurants and malls.
Farnum gets that smartphones offer a lot of convenience, but he thinks the devices do more harm than good for children.
“Eventually kids are going to get phones and join the world, and I think we all know that, but little children, there’s just no good that comes from that," he told The Coloradoan.
The 49-year-old dad noticed that after his two youngest sons, ages 11 and 13, got smartphones last year, their personalities completely changed. Their energetic selves became moody and reclusive.
“There were some real problems,” he told The Washington Post. “If you tell them to watch the screen time, all of a sudden the fangs come out.”
When Farnum would try to take away their phones, it would trigger aggressive temper tantrums. These meltdowns or tech tantrums are familiar to many parents in similar situations who try to interrupt their kids' addictive habits. The adverse effects are also known as "electronic cocaine" and "digital heroin" because it can trigger an unhealthy high, similar to that of drug addicts.
“We have age restrictions on all those things because they’re harmful to kids,” Farnum told The Washington Post when comparing smartphone access to equivalents like smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. “This is no different, in my opinion.”
Many high-tech executives choose to be low-tech parents, but that's the thing, they choose to parent that way. Major critics of Farnum's proposal say that although the dad's intentions are good, the law could be a huge encroachment into private family life.
"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," Colorado Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, told The Coloradan.
For Michael Cole—parenting expert, CEO and founder of family management dashboard Picniic, and founder of brain training program Fit Brains—decisions like these should be left to parents, especially because every family situation and child is different. Parents should be concerned about how much time their kids spend on devices, but the proposed initiative is not the right answer.
"Today’s kids will never get a full tech detox, even with government intervention. As parents, our job is to lead by example, teaching kids when and where using smartphones is appropriate, and to teach kids not to just 'consume' content but to also 'create.' That strikes the right balance," Cole tells Mom.me. "This initiative also overlooks the positive ways technology can impact children. There are many apps, games and tools available that actually work to bring families together, teach kids organization, communication and responsibility. Parents should act as guides for younger children, monitoring and approving the content that they have access to."
Last fall, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend avoiding screen time, besides video chatting, for children under 18 months. For those under 6, parents should restrict screen time to no more than an hour a day of high-quality programming. Kids 6 and older should have consistent time limits on screen time to make sure it isn't taking time away from sleep or physical activity.