In his book Contemplations (Salamander), the British writer Zadie Smith tells the following anecdote: she was walking down the street, and, like a good novelist, she was dedicated to listening to the conversation of two women, who criticized another who had just passed by, walking a baby of about nine months in a cart. The baby was carrying an iPad. Smith assumed that his spies were scandalized because he had an electronic device that was potentially harmful to a child so young, who is not yet able to speak or walk and can barely hold himself seated. But not. What amazed women, Smith quickly discovered, was that they let a baby handle a pot of more than a thousand euros. The author laughed at herself and her upper-middle class bias: “In my privilege, I had confused one ethical argument with another.”
The vignette that it narrates is illustrative of the extent to which concern about the amount of time children spend with a personal screen in hand, with a tablet or a smartphone, has escalated positions in the mental framework of parenting, or less of parenting in certain areas. Every month studies are published that warn of the dangers of mixing these two things, children and telephones with an internet connection. There will be consequences, those studies tell us, in the cognitive, neural and emotional realms. And while, in the houses, the struggle continues to tear the device from the child’s hands, to delay a little the purchase of the first smartphone own, which in Spain usually occurs at age 11 – according to a Unicef study that surveyed 50,000 adolescents.
At 11, most minors have already spent a lot of time with a mobile phone in their hands (711 hours for children under 11 years old, according to a 2019 study by the Qustodio consultancy), and the adults around them have spent perhaps the same amount of time torturing himself for allowing it. Every now and then, a high-voltage moral panic, such as the recent one around The Squid Game –the popular and violent Netflix series that some children imitated in the schoolyard last year—, brings to the public sphere conversations that generally take place indoors.
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If this, children’s access to devices, is a social problem, is it legitimate to expect the State to legislate in this regard, instead of letting improvised regulation be imposed on each house? The debate resurfaces from time to time. In Italy there is a draft law, proposed by Forza Italia, to make children’s access to smartphones illegal until they are 14 years old. An undersecretary of the Ministry of Health named Sandra Zampa said about it in January of last year: “It is silly that to drive a car you need a driving license and to use a mobile phone there are no age limits. Smartphones are as powerful as automobiles, if not more, and distinctions must be made in the possibility of mobile use depending on the age of the children ”. The senator of the party that Silvio Berlusconi founded in charge of defending the proposal in the Senate, Andrea Cangini, added: “We are creating generations of digital insane, it is difficult to limit the use because its effects are the same as those of cocaine.” It is the furthest that a developed country has ever come from legislating on the matter. France banned the use of mobiles in schools in 2018.
It should be remembered that, as early as the late 1920s, German scientists proved that tobacco caused lung cancer. It took almost 60 years to arrive at legislation that would prohibit the consumption of tobacco by persons under 16 years of age in Spain. It happened in 1982.
The British philosopher Julian Baggini wrote in 2017 an article in The Guardian quite categorical that he advocated such a ban. However, five years later, it is not so clear. “Things have changed a lot and the idea of a total ban is no longer credible,” he says by phone. The smartphones They have become an integral part of how we live, as noted by thinkers like David Chalmers, who argue that the mobile is an extension of ourselves, where we store our memories and ideas. Therefore, banning them is like having part of your brain removed. Baggini says he is “agnostic” regarding state intervention, but he does approve measures like the French one and believes that there should be self-regulation by digital companies and social networks. Just before he became a Meta, the wounded Facebook had to internally kill his idea of an Instagram for kids when his reports concluded that the potential damages were so great that it was not worth the risk.
Jorge Cardona, a specialist in children’s rights and a former member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, also does not believe that mobile phones should be prohibited for children and does not buy the parallelism that is usually done with drugs and alcohol. “The big difference is that technology has great virtues and advantages, and access to the digital environment is a right, so it cannot be limited,” he argues, although he admits that this problem is of great concern in international organizations. “On many occasions we find that families do not have the training to limit it, but we cannot curtail the rights of children because their parents do not have that training. What the public administrations have to do is give support to parents so that they fulfill their parental obligations ”, says the lawyer.
Child psychiatrist Lefa S. Eddy, an expert in the use of screens and technology, points out that the question is not so much in when to access mobile phones, but in how. “The accompaniment is basic. It can’t be that a kid has his cell phone all night, I see children who are chatting until four in the morning. I think the parents in 5 or 10 years will do much better than the current ones, because they will have already grown up with smartphones”. The doctor confirms that since the pandemic she is treating many more cases of childhood depression and anxiety, sometimes starting as early as age seven. “In aspects such as self-harm, the influence of the networks is being noticed. Teens cut themselves, photograph it, post it on Instagram and receive I like it. And the same with eating disorders. If the thinner a girl is, the more likes receives, how is that controlled? ”he wonders.
There are also signs of problems derived from the use of mobile phones, such as inattention. Eva Marrugat, 51, teaches Social at a public institute in Tarragona “socially transversal” and years ago she stopped requisitioning cell phones in classrooms. Parents, he says, were angry. And besides, there are too many. All his students have smart phones. “The boys, above all, are hooked on games like Clash Royale and when I go to class they tell me: ‘Professor, let me finish the game, if I don’t lose the points.” He has also witnessed cases of cyberbullying and sexual extortion – according to a Unicef study, one in ten adolescents has received sexual advances from adults – and addiction to gambling, especially in high school courses. Her observation as a veteran teacher is that now “they go too fast and do not absorb the questions” partly because of their digital distraction, although perhaps they are better at doing more than one thing at a time.
One of the most extensive studies that have been done to date to try to quantify this causality between the use of smartphones and mental disorders in children was led by the Canadian psychiatrist Elia Abi-Jaoude. She stresses that the issue must be approached from a broad perspective, not just a medical one. “There is evidence of the role of telephones and networks in adolescent mental health problems, but this is unlikely to be the only explanation. There are many other factors, socio-economic and cultural, that contribute. The important thing is not to regulate but to respond with initiatives that emphasize family well-being and the resilience of young people ”. Abi-Jaoude also points to the positive use of mobiles to save children from their isolation during the pandemic. So at what age would she give a child a cell phone? “It is not so much about a chronological age, that depends on the child and their socio-emotional development. What I do recommend is that they are not allowed to be worn at night and that adults remember that their own use is the model ”.
This week, the digital literacy expert Jordan Shapiro was in favor, in an interview with this newspaper, of giving the mobile phone to children before the age of 13, when they are still being advised.
With the recent panic of the squid In Spain, a Twitter thread by the education expert Catherine L’Ecuyer went viral in which she pointed out that only in the houses where she has “thrown in the towel” were there problems of this kind, and that the recipe to avoid them was that the children did not have access to screens or smartphones, not even after 14, and that there was no Netflix subscription at home. Instead, a single computer in the hallway for school use, lots of conversation, books, and family movies. As soon as he began to circulate on Twitter, some users supported his position and said that this was precisely his parenting style. But there were many more responses pointing out that all of the above was impractical, unrealistic, expensive and potentially harmful, since the digital intimacy that adolescents have in their networks is also that, intimacy.
Perhaps the preoccupation with screens is something that only middle-class parents can afford, as Zadie Smith pointed out in her essay. We are tired of hearing that Silicon Valley leaders educate their children without mobiles at home and in schools unplugged. The philosopher Eudald Espluga speaks in his newly published book Don’t be yourself (Paidós) of “digital puritanism”, which happens when technology is thought of as an addiction and is perceived “as a temptation that we must avoid if we want to lead a productive, disciplined and honest life”. Espluga believes that this panic related to children already existed before the smartphones: it is the same as that generated by television or video games, which were seen as a corrupting influence. And he criticizes that this digital puritanism does not question “the economic, political and ethical foundations of platform capitalism”, but limits itself to proposing a modest consumption of them. The author also sees a class bias in what he sees as neoludism applied to childhood. Not all children have the same digital experience, nor is it equally possible for all of them to disconnect. “Just like eating sweets or showering regularly, it has to do with the parents’ work-life balance and with the economic possibilities of alternative leisure,” he points out.
Any analysis or attempt to regulate children and electronic devices will also have to take that into account, that in many families the iPhone is given to the child to calm them, but also so that their exhausted parents can fulfill their long work obligations.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.