Commentary: Managing our moral panic when children use smartphones excessively

Commentary: Managing our moral panic when children use smartphones excessively

Concerns by parents over their children’s excessive smartphone use may be valid, but Nicolas Bowman explores whether many are banning such use for the right reasons.

Wifi phone
File photo of a smartphone user on Wi-Fi. (Photo: AFP)

WEST VIRGINIA: If a few concerned parents have their way, Colorado will be among the first states to ban the sale of smartphones for use by children under the age of 13.

After witnessing what he called a “dramatic, very violent outburst” from one of his sons when taking away his smartphone, a Colorado father, who is also a medical professional, helped create a new lobby group called Parents Against Underage Smartphones (PAUS). The group provides links to a wide range of research into the negative effects of smartphone use on children.

The effort appears to be well-meaning and supportive of healthy childhood development. But from my perspective as a media psychologist, informed by research into the uses and effects of communication technology, I see that the group’s concerns fit a common historical pattern of undue alarm over new technology.

Human innovation advances rapidly, but most people’s understanding of new items and capabilities can’t keep up. The result is a sense of moral panic over what we fear will be negative effects on us all, and even on society at large.

As we know from research on sex education, teaching fear and avoidance of something can’t always protect people from negative consequences: Sexual abstinence instruction doesn’t prevent teen pregnancies, but increases their frequency instead.

Moral panic over technology similarly encourages people to withdraw from, rather than engage with and understand the tools of today and tomorrow.

The concerns of parents and groups such as PAUS are valid, but they shouldn’t be dealt with by banning technology. Rather, children and adults should work together to understand new innovations and learn to use them in productive ways.


One of the earliest examples of a moral panic related to information technology can be found in Socrates’ concerns about writing. In a lecture titled the Phaedrus, the ancient Greek philosopher said written words divorced information from its original spoken source, and added that writing things down would irreversibly weaken people’s memories.

This may seem like a quaint worry today, but it was a notable critique in a time where systematic reasoning and oral debate were the bellwethers of intelligence.

In the 1790s, the printing of adventure novels raised concerns that children were compulsively reading at the expense of their chores. In the 1920s, people feared that crossword puzzles would contribute to illiteracy. In the 1970s, critics labelled the video game Death Race a “murder simulator”, sparking an ongoing debate about whether video games encourage violence.

Social attitudes regarding technology are not usually formed by direct experience. Rather, they most often come from reading media reports, listening to other parents or teachers, or watching Hollywood films.

As a result, many of our perceptions of technological threats are based on often sensationalised anecdotes rather than actual interaction and understanding.

Smartphones may be particularly difficult to evaluate, because one device has so many capabilities – for both good and ill.


A healthy dose of scepticism toward technology is important. It helps us avoid misusing technology in harmful and silly ways – such as using X-ray machines to figure out what shoe size a person needs to buy.

Moral panic, by contrast, tends to suggest people not use new technologies at all. Abstaining does avoid the costs, but this also deprives people of the benefits of new technologies.

For example, kids and teenagers with smartphones can use them to support their educational efforts. Smartphones can also help with kids’ social lives, keeping them in touch with friends.

Safety also comes into play: Concerned about school shootings, many school districts in the US are reversing bans on smartphone access during school hours, allowing and even encouraging students to use them for emergency communication.


By discouraging learning, moral panic fuels misunderstanding and unfamiliarity.

Engaging with new technologies cautiously – and, for children, under adult supervision – is a better approach than banning the unknown. 

The American Academy of Pediatricians suggests limiting children’s access to computers, smartphones and TV screens. Rather than banning screen time entirely, the group recommends parents and kids work together to figure how best to use smartphones and other devices.

When it comes to smartphones, it would be odd – and wrong – to ban kids from using the digital devices that define their generation. And such a reaction ill prepares them for the jobs and lives in the information-saturated 21st century they will have to embrace.

Nicolas Bowman is associate professor of communication studies at West Virginia University. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation. Read the original commentary here.

Source: CNA/sl