Should States Regulate Teen Smart Phone Use?

Collective action is what we sometimes need to save our children.


John Stonestreet

Jared Hayden

Recently, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law to prevent children younger than 14 from having social media accounts. Florida is not the first state to restrict use of social media by minors. A year ago, Utah passed a law to require parental consent for minors to have social media accounts and to require that social media platforms allow parents to see posts and messages by their children.  

Supporters of these laws point to the countless, documented ways that social media and digital technologies harm teenagers. On the other side are those concerned that these laws enable government encroachment on personal freedoms and will lead to increased surveillance and intervention by the state. Not to mention, it is parents who should be managing how children use smartphones and social media, not the state.  

Parents should be, but for the most part, they’re not. 

First, social media platforms do not provide the tools necessary to protect children. As mother of five and CEO of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation Dawn Hawkins noted, “The parental controls do not work. They’ve designed these platforms without parents in mind.” For example, over 32 steps are required on Apple devices to set up parental controls. Even the Chromebooks distributed at schools come with minimal settings and parental controls. It’s far too easy for overwhelmed parents to skip these steps. And far too many do skip them, failing to realize all that is at stake for their child’s health and wellbeing. 

Still, as Jonathan Haidt has argued, even if parents had the tools they needed, this is not just a problem of what their children see online.  

Content moderation is to some extent a red herring, a distraction from larger issues. Yes, it must be done and done better, but even if these platforms could someday remove 95% of harmful content, the platforms will still be harmful to kids. 

In other words, there’s danger in the medium, not just the message. For example, even Meta’s “industry-leading efforts” to make its social media platforms safer for kids are aimed at keeping kids on, not off their screens. According to Haidt, the screens are the problem, “Let me be clear: there is no way to make social media safe for children by just making the content less toxic. It’s the phone-based childhood that is harming them, regardless of what they watch.” 

The ubiquity of smartphones, social media, and the internet has created, in Haidt’s words, a collective action problem for our children. That’s a situation in which many people would benefit from a particular course of action, but if only one person or small group of people chooses that course of action, it will not be beneficial, but costly. The result? Without collective action, no individual is likely to take any action.  

Haidt argues in his latest book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, that collective action is what we need to save our children. He suggests four ideas that need to become new norms, which would require collective action: no smartphones before high school, no social media before 16, phone-free schools, and more independence, free play, and responsibility in the real world at an earlier age. 

State regulation is necessary, but it can never replace good parenting or good community. That’s because the state lacks precision. It can only use a chainsaw, even when a scalpel is needed. Even if states take steps to shield kids, parents must step in and guide teens about social media and smartphone use. At the same time, if parents are going to protect their kids from the harms of a phone-based childhood, they will need others to do it with them. They will need schools, home-school groups, or other educational alternatives where they can trust that their kids will not be pressured to socialize by plugging in. 

In recent years, local congregations and groups of Christian families have joined together to take the “Postman Pledge.” By taking this pledge, named after tech critic Neil Postman, families agree to a year of raising their kids sans smartphones and in social community with one another.  

Now more than ever, we need collective action to protect kids from phone-based childhoods. The more, the better. 

This Breakpoint was co-authored by Jared Hayden. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to 


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