NZ Herald: Why NZ should ban smartphones for under-16s

Originally published by the NZ Herald 05/05/24

Throughout history, pivotal decisions have profoundly shaped societal norms and public welfare. For example, New Zealand’s groundbreaking 1893 decision to grant women the right to vote significantly advanced gender equality. Similarly, measures like raising the age of consent, tightening restrictions on tobacco sales to minors, and mandating seatbelt use have collectively enhanced societal safety and welfare, setting precedents for future generations. Today, we face a similar crossroads with regard to children’s access to smartphones.

The Government’s decision to ban the use of phones in schools is a significant and commendable step. While I deeply appreciate this move, I would urge the Government to go even further by implementing a ban on smartphones for children under 16.

As a parent of three, with an almost-12-year-old, my husband and I have consistently taken a stricter approach to limiting our children’s exposure to digital devices. When our son turned 11, we gave him a basic Nokia brick phone rather than a smartphone. This decision reflects our commitment to delaying his exposure to smartphones while ensuring we can still stay in contact with him during his hour-long daily commute.

However, most of his friends already have smartphones.

Research from the UK states a staggering 97 per cent of 12-year-olds in Britain own a smartphone. This widespread access has not come without consequences. Research reveals the detrimental effects of these devices, such as exposure to inappropriate content, increased risk of addiction, and significant mental health issues. These problems are exacerbated by the omnipresence of social media that can lead to cyberbullying, body image issues, and overall lower self-esteem.

Moreover, the social implications of restricting smartphone use are also significant. For instance, our son, starting at a new school, found himself somewhat isolated because most of his new friends communicated primarily through platforms such as Snapchat. This dichotomy between connectivity and isolation poses a complex challenge for parents navigating the digital landscape with their children.

Most parents want to do the right thing and believe they can effectively regulate the content their children access online, but this often proves to be a misconception. Several of my friends have recounted instances where their children circumvented parental controls, either by altering the settings themselves or by finding loopholes in the safeguards meant to protect them.

This challenge underscores a broader dilemma many parents face: the fear of social isolation if their child does not have a smartphone. Consequently, many parents yield to peer pressure, choosing to provide smartphones to avoid this isolation. In our family, addressing this complex issue has required us to maintain open and honest communication with our son. This approach is vital, particularly in an environment where many parents are battling their own smartphone addictions.

In fact, tech companies invest billions in making apps and devices intentionally addictive, affecting young brains in ways similar to gambling. One disturbing statistic from a study is that one in five teens engages with YouTube “almost constantly”. This level of engagement has tangible effects on mental health, with heavy social media use linked to a 50 per cent increase in depressive symptoms among girls, compared with 35 per cent for boys, highlighting a gender disparity in the impact of these technologies.

In my role, I am confronted daily with the rising tide of mental health issues among youth. This is occurring in an environment where our healthcare resources are already stretched thin. Given this context, it is critical to re-evaluate the role of potentially harmful digital tools in the lives of our children.

Opponents argue phones are essential for classroom research, yet viable non-smartphone alternatives exist. I believe reliance on smartphones is unnecessary before age 16. Furthermore, education on responsible device usage should be introduced after age 16, when the brain is better equipped to handle the digital world.

Meanwhile, the evidence is clear and compelling — as a society that has historically regulated substances such as alcohol and tobacco to protect our young, it is logical and necessary to extend these protections to include the risks associated with digital device use among youth.

Therefore, I urge the Government to take a bold step further by considering a ban on smartphones for those under 16 in New Zealand. This measure would not only safeguard our children’s mental and physical health, but could set a global precedent similar to the way we led the world in granting women the right to vote.

Let’s start a movement to make New Zealand the first country to regulate smartphone use among children. Who’s with me? Together, we can make the decision to help protect our young generation from excessive digital exposure and set a positive example for the world, significantly enhancing the health and wellbeing of our children.