Home Mobile Why smartphones bamboozle politicians – UnHerd

Why smartphones bamboozle politicians – UnHerd

My sister has two children, both toddlers. Like many stay-at-home mums, an important part of her day is going to the supermarket. I remember these times myself: me and my twin being plonked into our car seats, then sitting in Costa having a frothy milk while our exhausted mum glugged a 12-shot cappuccino, and finally getting to sit in the small compartment at the front of the trolley while we sailed through the aisles. (My sister, because she was better behaved, got the proper seat.) There was so much to watch and touch and smell; we’d go to the fish bit and grimace at the heads, or snigger in the bra section. Hardly Little House on the Prairie, but now this real-world interactivity seems quaint.

These days, my correspondent tells me, trolley-seats are replete with zombified, glassy-eyed tots glued to Paw Patrol, Bluey or whatever else keeps them quiet. They aren’t babbling — just squealing when their phones or iPads are withheld. Their chauffeur — or “mum” — is often scrolling away herself.

Generation A scares me. And I suspect it may be because they have rarely known the value of being really, really bored. Boredom is such an integral part of childhood. Irritating parents tell us “only boring people get bored”. They expect you to spend an hour on your tod on a rainy Sunday and come up with a Picasso, that having nothing to do is a prerequisite for some incredible creative flourish. This isn’t true, and I don’t want to see your child’s art. But I do wish all children would know the crushing, annihilating boredom of being little with nothing to do, because it counteracts the cult of impulsive self-centredness which tells us that we must be happy and stimulated all the time. You cannot be. As a child, you must sit in excruciating boredom in assemblies, dentists’ waiting rooms, funeral services, MOT garages — so that being dragged around shopping centres or being dumped in a creche with other kids is a relative delight, not an unwelcome interlude to hours and hours of bed-bound scrolling.

We know smartphones are already affecting this. But what of the effects of technologies we know nothing about, which are developing so quickly that legislation can hardly get a look in? A recent thread on X drew attention to a worrying number of AI apps which claim to be able to “delete any clothing” or blend real photos with sexy composites — essentially a deepfake handbook, arming users with airbrushed breasts to append to real images of women or girls you know. “Crushmate” allows you to “chat with the girl of your dreams” who will “accommodate even your wildest requests”. “Talk about any topic with AI stepsister,” promises another, complete with an image undoubtedly compiled from 10,000 porn thumbnails. Why bother finding a real human being to undress, when you can blast your retinas with instantaneous, pornified and forever compliant facsimiles?

Something must clearly be done — but what? The problem with “banning” smartphones outright is that it almost definitely wouldn’t work. Age limits for social-media use, the key element at the heart of the smartphone issue, are almost impossible to enforce, and so easy to circumvent. ID verification techniques — which have been recommended for pornography — are seen as intrusive and risky for data protection.

“The problem with ‘banning’ smartphones outright is that it almost definitely wouldn’t work.”

Besides, there are good arguments against a blanket ban. Ian Russell, whose 14-year-old daughter Molly killed herself in 2017 after viewing suicide content online, wrote in The Guardian last month that he opposed an outright prohibition, calling it “naive”. “This would punish children for the failures of technology companies to build their products responsibly,” he said. As a result, the best the government may do at present is to issue guidelines which strongly recommend. This is already happening on a local level: last week, the headteachers of 20 of the 24 primary schools in St Albans signed a letter addressed to parents to urge them not to buy smartphones for their children until the age of 14.



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