By Jonathon Van Maren
This column was first published in 2018.
The responses to my column last week detailing the horrific story of a boy who engaged in porn-inspired sexual molestation of his young nieces after accessing porn on his iPhone have indicated once again that many parents simply do not want to recognize the dangers that smartphones pose to their children.
Over and over again, commenters made genuinely stupid and ill-thought-out assertions, such as “You must be a Luddite!” Obviously, one does not have to be opposed to technology to recognize the dangers of some devices. We all agree that children should not drive cars, because it is not safe. We are not anti-car just because we do not think everyone should be able to drive them at a young age.
Additionally, many people seemed unaware of the fact that pornography has mainstreamed sexual violence, and that the vast majority of young people access porn on their cell phones. These are unfortunate realities, and I could tell you hundreds of stories of children accessing porn on phones at incredibly young ages, often impacting their lives for years into the future.
I could provide you with 20, but for today, here are just 10 reasons you shouldn’t give your child a smartphone:
1. Many parents harbor the mistaken belief that once their children have a smartphone, they can still control their behavior. In reality, it is nearly impossible to completely lock down a device (although there are very important steps that can be taken), and 71 percent of teens hide their smartphone activity from their parents. I’ve had many parents tell me how relieved they are that their children haven’t ended up hooked on porn or involved in “that stuff,” knowing full well that their children have been involved.
2. As Vanity Fair journalist Nancy Jo Sales laid out in her devastating book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, sexting and sending nude selfies are now ubiquitous in every school from the big cities to the rural Bible belt. I interviewed a number of high school girls (from Christian schools) on this issue over the past several years, and every one of them said the same thing: The pressure to send photos is relentless. Giving your child a smartphone is providing the opportunity for that pressure to be applied. Many give in. Lives are ruined as a result. The photos are forever.
3. The average age a child first looks at porn is now age 11. (The youngest porn addict I ever met was homeschooled.) Providing children a device that, regardless of how hard you try to implement oversight or lock the device down (which is impossible to do completely), you are handing them a portal to the totality of human sexual depravity as it exists online. The majority of young people now view pornography, boys and girls. The majority of them have seen things (grotesque sexual violence among other things) that previous generations could not have imagined. To give them this opportunity and this temptation at an age when we would not trust them with the right to vote, drink, smoke, or drive makes no rational sense and is arguably more dangerous.
4. Most children are exposed to sexual violence via pornography via smartphones. As I mentioned in my previous columns, experts are increasingly noticing that children are trying what they see in porn on other children, with tens of thousands of cases in the U.K. of child-on-child sexual abuse being investigated, and healthcare professionals in the United States sounding the alarm.
5. Our society still has not figured out how to control these technologies. In fact, the very Silicon experts who create these devices and these screens warn that they are a “dark influence” on children and either do not provide their own children smartphones at all, or they strictly limit the amount of time they may be on one. If those who develop smartphones are saying that they are dangerous for young people, perhaps we should be listening more closely.
6. Porn companies are actively trying to get children to look at pornography. Some have tagged hardcore porn content with phrases like “Dora the Explorer,” for example, in order to get kids to stumble on to their material. Your child may not be looking for porn. Porn is certainly looking for your child.
7. The porn companies have quite literally re-digitized their content in order to make it more accessible on a smartphone. They know that the vast majority of young people will not be viewing their material on laptops or desktops or TVs anymore. Most young people are viewing porn on their smartphones, in their bedrooms. If parents have restricted Wi-fi, it is easy these days to find free Wi-fi almost anywhere. So while you may be convinced that your child/teen can withstand the relentless sexual temptation of having access to pornography, the porn companies are quite certain that they can win this fight.
8. Smartphones provide children the first environment in history that exists without any oversight by any adult whatsoever. The reason cyber-bullying is so effective and so dangerous is the fact that social media has created an alternative world, inhabited by young people and their peers and inaccessible to parents and guardians. A generation ago, the bullying would stop when you got home from school. Today, you can be bullied at home, in your bedroom. In fact, a spate of suicides resulting from cyber-bullying tell that precise story.
9. Children do not need smartphones. They think they do, of course, because they want access to social media and the Internet. Who wouldn’t want access to something that can answer any and all of their questions? But considering the tremendous power of this tool, it is incredibly naïve to think that children and young teens are mature enough to handle it when the impact of smartphones on adults (and the skyrocketing rates of tech addiction) indicates that we have not even been able to figure out how to use this technology responsibly. If they need a phone for calling and texting purposes, get them a device without Internet access.
10. Smartphones often eliminate a child’s interest in other, healthier activities – like reading, outdoor recreation, and family time. I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone who has given their child a smartphone that a smartphone rapidly becomes an enormous part of the child’s life. This, of course, was predictable: There is a reason they begged so hard to have one in the first place.