Colorado dad aims to ban smartphone sales to preteens

/ AFP / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

A Colorado father is petitioning to make the sale of smartphones for children under 13 illegal in his state after witnessing his young sons’ addictive behaviors toward the technology.

“One of my sons, I took it away, and it was a pretty dramatic, very violent outburst,” said Dr. Timothy J. Farnum, a father of five who is an anesthesiologist by training. “He was very addicted to this little machine. It kind of scared me, and that’s really how it started.”

Farnum said he was disturbed by his 10- and 11-year-olds’ loss of interest in activities such as playing outside, as well as research on the potentially harmful impacts of excessive technology use.

In February, he and some medical colleagues started an organization called Parents Against Underage Smartphones. They started a ballot initiative in March aimed at prohibiting smartphone sales to anyone under the age of 13 or someone intending to give the device to a person under that age.

Their petition needs about 150,000 signatures in order to get Initiative 29 on Colorado’s ballot, Farnum said. It would require retailers to ask a customer their age or the age of the intended primary owner of the smartphone before the sale, according to the initial fiscal impact statement.

Retailers would also have to file a monthly report to the state Department of Revenue that lists whether the type of phone sold was a smartphone or a cellular phone and how old the owner was at the time of the purchase, according to the statement. The Department of Revenue would then create a portal to investigate these reports and collect any fees and penalties from the retailer. The first violation would result in a written warning, the second violation would carry a $500 fine, and the fine would double for each subsequent violation.

“You know, to most of the people that are saying things like, ‘Well, it’s a parent’s right; how dare the government do this,’ I would like to say, I’m not the government, I’m a parent. And us parents need to decide what is best for our kids,” Farnum said. “And we can’t do it alone.”

When asked about the proposed age restriction, CTIA, a trade group that represents the wireless technology industry, said in a statement, “mobile phones can empower kids to learn, engage and communicate with family, teachers and friends, and we encourage parents to talk with their children about responsible use and set rules that are right for their family. The wireless industry provides a number of tools to help parents make informed choices and manage their children’s usage.”

Dr. Donald Shifrin, a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine and spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said he is skeptical that legislation would lead to an improved management of smartphone use in children. Parents should be responsible for creating rules and expectations about using the phone, he said.

“When youngsters leave our house to go somewhere, as parents, we often say, ‘Where are you going? What are you going to be doing? Who are you going to be with, and when will you be back?’ And sometimes, we forget to use that terminology when they’re online,” Shifrin said. “Those parameters stay the same regardless of what kind of media those youngsters are using, whether it’s tablets, computers, laptops or cell phones.”

Studies have shown the impact these devices can have on children. In fact, a study published in May found that children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years had a 49% increased risk of expressive speech delay per 30-minute increase in daily screen time. Last year, a poll revealed that 50% of teenagers think they are addicted to their own smartphones.

There are no evidence-based age recommendations for when a child should get their first phone, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A common rule of thumb is around seventh to eighth grade, Shifrin said. But it is essential for parents to set guidelines regarding how and when the phone should be used.

Holland Haiis, a digital detox and connectivity expert, is also not fond of Farnum’s proposed legislation.

“What it seems like is happening here is that instead of the dog wagging the tail, it looks like the tail is wagging the dog,” she said. “Because it’s not necessarily the store or the provider’s responsibility to have laws implemented for how you should take care of your child at a consumer level like this. It really starts at home.”

By Daniella Emanuel