Ban smartphone ownership for under 16s and safeguard our kids' mental health

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It seems like every other week, a new study appears which links smartphone use and social media with increased rates of depression, social isolation, anxiety and even suicide in children and teens (girls in particular).  It's not that surprising, given that our childhood and early teenage years are when kids are at their most impressionable, vulnerable and uncertain of who they are. This petition is to implore Australia's National Children's Commissioner Megan Mitchell to safeguard the mental health of the nation's kids by acting to legally restrict the ownership of and/or unsupervised access to smartphones and tablets to those aged over 16.

Here are just a few telling facts and findings:

  • In the US, depression and suicide rates in teenagers have jumped in the last decade—doubling between 2007 and 2015 for girls. The trend suspiciously coincides with the launch of the iPhone and surge in child smartphone use.
  • Another recent US study of 500,000 school-age kids found “a clear pattern linking screen activities with higher levels of depressive symptoms/suicide-related outcomes and non-screen activities with lower levels.”
  • A 1-week experiment with 1,095 participants in 2015 in Denmark, provided causal evidence that Facebook use negatively affects our well-being.
  • Leading tech execs (including Steve Jobs himself) have publicly stated that they set strong limits  on their own children's smartphone use with many banning them entirely.

Giving a child unfettered access to the internet is like giving them the key to Pandora's box and saying "have at it!" The web is not a safe space for our kids - so why would we give them free access to it? Hand a child a smartphone and you're potentially exposing them to an endless supply of disturbing imagery and adult concepts they are simply not emotionally equipped to understand and process, not to mention 24/7 access from bullies (case-in-point the recent tragic suicide of 14 year old Dolly Everett in the Northern Territory). From a behavioural point-of-view, we're encouraging them to seek entertainment and distraction from a screen, instead of learning how to entertain themselves and unleash the creativity that stems from boredom.  We're teaching them to have passive, inactive social relationships that live online instead of leaving their bedrooms and having real, in-person experiences with their friends and peers. 

The generation who've grown up with a smartphone in their hand (depressingly known in psychology circles as 'iGen') are literally the world's guinea pigs. No one can say how this will affect them in the future, because this is unprecedented in human history. As Professor of Psychology Jean Twenge puts it, "It's not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades."  When are parents and people in power going to wake up and realise that when it comes to children, this is not simply a useful, life-enhancing device? It's a potential danger with manifold, unknown consequences.  As for the experts who argue that parental discretion and monitoring is the key, that argument only works in your own home. When every other child has a smartphone in the playground, who's to say what material our kids are being exposed to, willingly or unwillingly? It seems a little naive to put your own child's mental health in the hands of other pre-pubescent children - not because they're bad kids necessarily, but because (unlike the average adult) they aren't emotionally mature enough to appreciate the consequences of their actions.  

When our kids ride bikes or travel in cars, the law states they have to wear a helmet or a seatbelt. They aren't permitted to smoke, drink or have sex until they reach an age when they are deemed mature enough to make that decision for themselves. The adults who sell them cigarettes or alcohol or don't remind them to wear a seatbelt are responsible in the eyes of the law and penalised accordingly. It's not a perfect system, but at least it's doing something, setting some boundaries. We have so many legal safeguards in place for our kids' physical health - why are we not doing the same for their emotional wellbeing? 

I'm the mother of an almost four year old. I want desperately for her to have a childhood free from fear of bullying in her own bedroom and hardcore pornography in the playground, where she doesn't have to be subjected to the sight of another child live-streaming their own suicide on Facebook (yep, that really happened) or be confronted with other disturbing acts of violence or cruelty her mind doesn't know how to process. I'm not saying that enforcing an age limit on smartphone ownership is the answer to all of these problems, but it seems an obvious place to start. And if you really, absolutely have to be able to contact your child any time any where, what's wrong with a good old-fashioned Nokia or Alcatel? It still does all the things you need, without the harmful and addictive side effects. Just a thought. 

In short, things need to change. We need to take action now to protect our kids and keep them happy and safe. The smartphone is destroying their childhoods, their mental health and in some cases, even their lives.   Please sign this petition and encourage others to do the same so that our kids have the same chance at a healthy childhood that we did. 



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