There will be regulations on smartphones. But how?

The Florida House just passed a bill with bipartisan support that purports to ban social media use for teenagers under the age of 16. A bit over a month ago the Swedish government called for a review of school policies with a view to make school grounds mobile-free, and further changes in policy to “emphasize the real world” are in the bag as well during the coalition talks. In Spain, three regions have already banned all mobile phone usage in schools and there is increasing push to make the ban nationwide and even tighter. Just yesterday, the State School Council in Spain published its first proposal draft in public consultation.

France has banned mobile phones in schools 5 years ago and a week ago president Emmanuel Macron announced a strategic guidance to his government to come up with a policy to “take back control” of youth screen use.

Now, sure, all of the above-cited policies have various issues – from legality, enforcement or morality. But one thing is certain: The notion of regulating smartphones is no longer a fantasy – but a growing trend. So the debate is no longer whether smartphone use should be regulated, but rather how should this be done in such a way that doesn’t violate fundamental rights but at the same time addresses the issues that arose from excessive smartphone usage.

The issues

Jonathan Haidt, who is hardly a right-wing reactionary bigot, wrote in 2021 about the smartphone trap.

In a paper we just published in The Journal of Adolescence, we report that in 36 out of 37 countries, loneliness at school has increased since 2012. We grouped the 37 countries into four geographic and cultural regions, and we found the same pattern in all regions: Teenage loneliness was relatively stable between 2000 and 2012, with fewer than 18 percent reporting high levels of loneliness. But in the six years after 2012, rates increased dramatically. They roughly doubled in Europe, Latin America and the English-speaking countries, and rose by about 50 percent in the East Asian countries.

From 2012 onwards, and especially after 2015 (when smartphones became very cheap), mental health issues skyrocketed among teenagers in ways not seen in two or even three decades prior to the advent of smartphones.

The biggest issue is attention span. Nobody today denies that attention span in social media addicted societies has visibly decreased. Between 2000 and 2015, the median attention spans of Americans shrank by a whopping 25%. In 2000, the median attention span was 12 seconds. Fifteen years later, it’s shrunk significantly to 8.25 seconds. That’s less than goldfish, whose attention span runs for 9 full seconds.

Then there’s the bullying issue. I personally have very little sympathy in that department but, nevertheless, since this is a political issue, the rules of politics and propaganda apply, rather than reason. And in propaganda, perception is reality. Cyberbullying may or may not be a big issue but, if enough people believe it is, then it is an issue.

And then there are the sex-based effects. Both boys and girls are affected by social media use – it’s just that they’re affected differently and at different moments in their development. Puberty is a very hard period for nearly all teens. Social media use makes that far worse.

Instagram had particularly strong effects on girls and young women, inviting them to “compare and despair” as they scrolled through posts from friends and strangers showing faces, bodies and lives that had been edited and re-edited until many were closer to perfection than to reality.

On boys, the effects on self esteem are similar to those felt by girls for similar reasons: the building of an unrealistic image of others. What’s different is the age. Boys are negatively affected by social media after the age of 14, while girls are affected from the ages of 11-12. One main difference is that boys overcome it harder, later and slower than girls. To make things worse, not only the issue is rarely being studied (money from Samsung and Apple make sure this stays under-studied), but when it is studied, the specific impact on boys is ignored due to generalized gynocentrism in the Academia. But that’s a story for another day.

Then there’s the issue of social media being a black box. X/Twitter published its recommendation algorithm. A step in the right direction but far from good enough.

We still have no idea what (and why) is recommended by Meta products and by TikTok. Experiments show that using a Chinese IP address will yield a very different type of recommendations than using an American address. There is increased awareness that TikTok is essentially the CCP’s spyware program.

But all of this ignores the obvious issue: Smartphones themselves. It would be easier to manage all of these without or with less smartphone usage.

”Oh, but I can’t” is the language of addicts. Which is also coopted by vested interests and, of course, naive people with limited imagination.

What vested interests? The smartphone global market was over half a trillion dollars in 2021 and poised to grow to almost one trillion dollars ($947 billion) by 2030. That’s a lot of money. The mobile app market was another $230 billion in 2023. And that’s before including video games for smartphones which is another $140 billion. That’s a lot of money. The GDP of Switzerland is slightly smaller than the current market worth of the smartphone and smartphone-dependent industries. The GDP of oil-rich Norway plus Sweden combined will soon be (if they aren’t already) smaller than the vested interests in smartphones.

So the opposition will be fierce and very well funded. Not to mention the limitless armies of social media zombies who will gladly be the useful idiots of Big Tech like all good junkies. And this is why I think the regulation has to be better thought-out.

Schools are a no-brainer

Long lauded as the most progressive country in the world because of its embrace of digitalization, Sweden is also the first to openly say that it’s been a disaster. Swedish kids can’t write anymore. So the Education Ministry is slowly phasing out tablets and all other digital assets from the classroom. Who knew? Those backward peasants of the past had a point. Education works best on paper, they say. The Karolinska Institute goes even further and asserts what we’ve been telling you on the Sofa for years: Digital tools impair rather than enhance student learning.

Seven years ago the Dutch have noticed that about a third of primary school kids had severe difficulties in learning to write. Some have placed this on the fact that there are more and more kids in Dutch schools with a migrant background. But the figure is much higher than the proportion of kids with a migrant background. It’s not just immigrants. It’s quite a lot of kids who are, for all intends and purposes, illiterate.

As it turns out, knowing how to use TikTok isn’t really digital skills even though that’s exactly what the progressive boomers who introduced digital tools in schools sincerely believed. And, as usual for boomers, they were wrong.

In practicality, the easiest way to get a majority to support a restrictive policy is to phrase it like this: No devices that can connect to the Internet are permissible on school grounds. Yes to dumbphones, no to smartphones.

It’s imperfect, but it’s a step ahead. And, in fact, it’s merely a return to the status quo of 2010 – when a majority of students had a dumbphone.

Smartphone-free spaces

There is increased demand for them anyway, as more and more are starting to realize the danger and the trade-offs, but there is still not enough courage to start promoting it openly.

Just like there are places that have a dress code, there can and should be places that don’t allow smartphone usage at all. Preferably with a jammer installed too.

There is such thing as a “digital Sabbath” which, quite frankly, should be encouraged but, in my estimation, it’s a low-return practice.

Much more interesting is the sudden and spectacular rise in nearly every country of the so-called “unplugged summer camps” for children and adults. Some are organized by NGOs, but a lot of them are organized by for-profit corporations. Nothing wrong with that, mind you. But they sure need more promotion.

And this is where the State can have a say: If a road trip with schoolchildren is organized using school resources even partially, then it is only approved if it’s a smartphone-free environment. This isn’t hard to implement and would run into very little opposition. Basically, treat smartphones like alcohol. There is a drinking age that usually is lower than 18 – but school premises have to be 100% dry. Well, same logic can and should apply to smartphones too: while smartphones aren’t (yet) forbidden to minors, that doesn’t mean they can be or should be used anywhere.

Regulation at the point of sale

Most countries don’t allow the sale of alcohol or antipsychotics to minors. Or they do, but only in special cases and with various controls. Why exactly shouldn’t smartphones be treated the same?

At the end of the day, and the evidence is increasingly clear on that, smartphones are a tool of mass psychosis. Its side effects on minors through extended use are very similar to the use of various psychotropics. As such, there is an argument to be made that they should be treated similarly.

While the argument is very difficult to make when it comes to adults (and I’m not even sure it’s worth trying), it is in fact very easy to make and implement when it comes to minors.

You have to prove you’re 18 to buy a gun, buy a bottle of vodka, a pack of cigarettes (even 21 in some places) or to check into a hotel. But for some reason we’re supposed to believe this can’t be done with smartphones? Gimme a break!

Yes, such a regulation is imperfect (like all regulations) and there are workarounds, granted. However, it sets a different tone of conversations in the family. It sends the message that the expectation is children don’t use smartphones at all.

Currently, too many parents aware of the negative effects are put in the situation of actively fighting to opt out of the de facto mandatory smartphone for their children. Such a regulation would move the focus once again where it’s natural: You have to purposefully choose to opt-in and physically show up with your kid to get him one.

Just like a gun purchased online isn’t directly shipped to you, the same can be done for smartphones. An adult has to show up in person to pick it up. This isn’t hard. And whoever tells you otherwise is either an addict himself or acting on behalf of the aforementioned vested interests.

Right to log off

Belgium, France and Kenya so far have already enacted legislation (France did so 8 years ago!) that explicitly states the right of employees to go fully offline outside of their work.

There’s a EU Parliament resolution on that too from 2021, though it will probably go nowhere for reasons that are worth discussing some other day. Still, the idea behind it is sound, albeit poorly articulated in some places.

The fact is that so many people feel pressured to always be online. Whether the pressure is real or not is another discussion. In many cases it is real. And few people are like yours truly to have rudeness necessary to answer with “go fuck yourself, I ain’t your personal ChatGPT” to angry e-mails or messages complaining that it’s been over 24 hours since they wrote to me and I haven’t replied. Most people want to be nice. And they strive to be nice until they drive themselves crazy. And when they snap, everyone pretends to be shocked and insists they have no idea how this could’ve happened.

Such legislation should not apply just in work relations, but more generally. Just like the anti-censorship legislation in many jurisdictions which punishes attempts to censor someone else in public, the right to log off could be framed similarly: with punishments for those who pressure others into usage of digital tools.

You may think that what I just wrote is fantasy, but it’s already happening. Sweden and Ireland are getting ready to punish stores that refuse cash. “Digital exclusion” is increasingly discussed in the circles of power as a crime in and of itself.

Now, of course, this will be a difficult argument to make because the tech grifts are going to fight this tooth and nail (like they did in France). Why? Because “digital transformation” is in itself an $800+ billion grift. A lot of that money already goes on propaganda to convince people and businesses to surrender their privacy and mental health to tech grifters who promise to make our lives more convenient.

Of course, the fact that they absolutely don’t make our lives better is immaterial. With enough propaganda you can convince tens of millions of people to act against their best interests. Take self-check-out for instance. It’s an abject failure. Who pays for that failure? YOU, my dear reader. Where do you think those stores will recoup their investment from?

The tech grifters got their money and moved on to the next “digital transformation” grift.

This is the extent to which “the right to log off” should ideally go: Codify into law the assumption that digitalization is bad and move the onus on the proponent to prove otherwise. Again, this will be hard to achieve because those hundreds of billions spent on propaganda will be used to fight tooth and nail any measure that protects regular people against the predatory practices of Big Tech.

Miscellaneous policy changes

Just like uber-digitalized Sweden was able to roll back the “progress” (and continues to do so), it stands to reason that this is possible elsewhere as well. Special interests be damned.

There are many ridiculous policies in so many countries that de facto force people to have a smartphone. Under the umbrella of “combating digital exclusion” – a lot of those policies can be abolished or amended.

I’m still upset I didn’t get to test this in court during the pandemic project when the Romanian government was stupid enough to try to impose the so-called “passenger location form” which could’ve only be filled in electronically. You see, because Ceaușescu didn’t let us travel, traveling now is an unalienable right in our Constitution. I would’ve loved to take the case to the Constitutional Court. Unfortunately, someone else was smart enough to advise the government to abolish that ASAP. And so they did before I needed to travel abroad and get the chance to violate that policy and then challenge it in court.

But oftentimes it doesn’t require complicated challenges in court. Oftentimes it requires very basic discussions. Like, for instance, when cities remove the option to pay for public transport in cash. At any hint of pushback, the vast majority of such measures are thrown away. I have a long list of cities where this happened.

What’s important when lobbying against such policies or for various normal-friendly amendments is to avoid coming off entirely against technology. Not only is that politically dangerous, but you also lose allies. A good chunk of smartphone addicts are victims as well and they’re not in favor of digital exclusion necessarily.

A change of attitude and lead by example

The most meaningful and impactful change, however, will be brought by regular people and private businesses with enough cojones.

Every year I, personally, convince two people to either ditch their smartphones entirely or to reduce their usage to less than a tenth of their previous habits. How do I do that? By simply existing.

This is me, more or less unironically

You see, given that I made (and still make, to a certain extent) my living in data centers and other tech-related activities, I’m fully aware of the limitations of technology. And especially about how brutally unsafe your data really is. Once you explain that to people, free of the self-interested shilling that nearly all techbros practice (oftentimes without even realizing it), a lot of people start thinking. It becomes even easier if you’re able to explain that in proper language rather than using wooden language rife with jargon that no reasonable human being will ever learn.

But this is hard. Most of those who oppose the over-extension of technology into our lives do so under an impulse. They sense that something’s really wrong, but have little idea on how to describe it, let alone to explain it or propose meaningful change. This aspect is mercilessly exploited by both Big Tech and tech grifters, aided by the hordes of zombie addicts who feel personally attacked when you start discussing their habits in the proper negative light.

Nearly all of those who peddle techno-optimistic baloney online and offline do so not out of a sincere belief in technology, but out of personal financial interest. And they will fight tooth and nail to defend their grift. First and foremost to prevent YOU from understanding that what they’re doing is not progress, but a grift.

Nevertheless, we must persist. We will not change the world over night, but the world does change one person at a time.

Last week a father contacted me to thank me for mocking his concerns about what would happen if he continues to “fail” to buy his 4th grade(!!!) daughter a smartphone a few years ago. She’s now 16, still doesn’t have one and, as a result, blows her peers out of the water because she possesses the valuable skill of being able to talk to people (something which her generation seriously lacks) and the valuable skill of being able to focus a bit more than 10 seconds on something.

She took an apprenticeship at a carpenter’s store last summer and this summer wants to go to an outdoor camp organized by some church where they’ll learn to cook, set up a tent and things of that nature. She is, in my book, a normal teenager who is experimenting. Unfortunately, by the standards of her generation, she is abnormal and exceptional. Her peers are getting ready for the college scam and later on join the ranks of overly entitled know-nothings. Hopefully she’ll be able to withstand the peer pressure because her path is objectively better.

Instead of conclusions

Unfortunately, we were all too dumb or too lethargic to have this discussion when it would’ve made a bigger difference: say in 2005. Before 2005, smartphones were marketed nearly exclusively to the enterprise market one which, arguably, needs it more. The discussion on whether to allow extending this to the civilian market, and especially to children, would’ve been better suited in 2005. But we didn’t. Because reasons. No point dwelling on the past now.

But this leaves us in a reactive situation. This mess will have to be cleaned up. And the way to do that is under debate.

There is no single answer. There is no single policy, or even package of policies that can be adopted and everything will be fixed. This will be a long and messy process. And, for now, with a lot of trial and error until the discussion reaches pleb level. And it will take a while because bypassing Big Tech’s wall of censorship isn’t cheap or easy. It’s doable, but don’t expect huge leaps so early on in the game.

But the first, and arguably the most important step, is this: The discussion should no longer be accepted under the terms of “should smartphones be regulated”. Reject the very notion. That debate is over. It is clear that smartphones (and the wide Big Tech grift) must necessarily be regulated. The debate is now how should that be done in such a way that has the least amount of trade-offs. It’s not an easy balance. And all sides will make mistakes for sure. But that is the legitimate debate.

Or, alternatively, you can do nothing and guarantee a generation of zombies who will, for sure, make life far worse for nearly everyone else. In fact, such a scenario would be explicitly in my own financial interest, even though I’d hate its toll on my mental health 🤷🏻‍♂️

That’s it, for now.

Lucian Vâlsan on Youtube
Lucian Vâlsan
Not particularly nice. Mostly libertarian-conservative. Founder of the Freedom Alternative Network.