14 April 2024

Weekly Briefing: Are phones really frying kids’ brains?


Not content with passing one of the most restrictive pieces of internet legislation in the Western world, the Government is now rumoured to be considering a ban on under-16s buying mobile phones. The proposal comes amid renewed debate surrounding the effects of social media and smartphone use on teenagers. On one side are those who are very concerned, such as New York University psychology professor Jonathan Haidt and Miriam Cates MP. On the other side are those who are unconvinced by the evidence. Then you have the cohort who are sceptical of the effectiveness of a ban, even if phones are doing our kids more harm than good. 

So who’s in the right? Haidt’s recent book, The Anxious Generation, has fuelled much of the recent discussion. In it he argues that the emergence of social media has had devastating effects on young people, especially teenage girls. According to Haidt, social media platforms such as Instagram have contributed to an increase in teen suicide, depression, and anxiety.

But Candice Odgers, a professor of psychological science and informatics at the University of California, Irvine, is unconvinced. In a review published in Nature, Odgers claims that Haidt’s ‘suggestion that digital technologies are rewiring our children’s brains and causing an epidemic of mental illness is not supported by science’. Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, invited Haidt onto his podcast Conversations With Tyler, where he also expressed some scepticism. 

Haidt has responded to Odgers and shared a helpful Google Doc where he has compiled a collection of research on the effects of social media.

Someone who is outside academia but has seen enough evidence is Miriam Cates MP, who recently praised news that the government is considering a ban on under-16s buying phones.

What Cates doesn’t consider, or dismisses, are not only the numerous benefits – both to parents and children – of under-16s having mobile phones, but that the ban as reported would make absolutely no difference, because it is not the kids who buy the phones. According to an Ofcom report, ‘nine in ten children owned their own mobile phone by the time they reached the age of 11’. That’s a startling statistic. But thanks to child labour laws, we can safely assume that these children are not buying these phones with their own money.

Which raises another question: if phones are causing teens to be so miserable, anxious, and socially ill-adjusted, why are parents buying them?

One answer is that in the modern world, mobile phones are a precondition for a functioning social life. Like it or not, social media is ubiquitous, and teenagers risk being outcasts if they do not have the latest phone or accounts on the latest platform.

Some might argue that the network effects of social media platforms provide a reason to institute a ban. Perhaps fewer teens on social media would encourage them to form old fashioned social groups and friendship norms. But many parents would still want their children to own phones thanks to the surveillance and instant communication such technology allows. According to one study, it was the safety mobile phones provided which motivated many parents of 9- to 12-year-olds to buy them. 

Opposing a ban on under-16s being able to buy phones, on grounds of both principle and practicality, does not entail dismissing all concerns about the effects of smartphones and social media on young people. Teachers can and should ban mobile phones in classrooms, and teach students about the risks associated with social media. Parents should enable the parental controls available to them and restrict their children’s mobile phone use in the home. 

But as with much discussion when it comes to regulating technology, a ban is not the answer. We need to better use the tools already available to us, and not so easily dismiss the benefits.

Matthew Feeney is Head of Tech and Innovation at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.