The Soft Tyranny of Smartphones

Brad Littlejohn & Clare Morell

Spring 2024

When Apple unveiled the first iPhone in January 2007, most ordinary consumers rolled their eyes — "why would I need a phone to do all that?" Before long, however, Americans were buying smartphones in droves. By 2013, smartphones had overtaken "dumb phones" in global market share for the first time; they have never looked back.

Initially, the great attraction of smartphones was their ability to combine standard call and text features with access to every corner of the digital world in one convenient, handheld device. Email, online shopping, YouTube, you name it — anything you wanted to do on the internet, you could now do from your phone. Smartphones also came with built-in cameras, obviating the need to carry around a digital camera and enabling users to seamlessly upload and share pictures with one another.

Aside from the camera feature, early smartphones did not do much to bridge the divide between the digital and analog worlds: Anything one could not do (or did not want to do) online required the use of legs, arms, and mouths, not just thumbs. People walked to the store, grabbed merchandise, and spoke to the cashier to complete their transaction. The initial smartphone offered, in short, a convenient add-on to the transactions and interactions of everyday life (and frequently a welcome escape — or an unhealthy distraction — from them). But those who preferred to live their lives without one could still function in society.

As the iPhone celebrated its 10th anniversary, however, a change was clearly underway: Smartphones were increasingly bridging the digital and analog divide, functioning as mediators to the physical world around us. With Uber, you could call a cab using your smartphone; soon you couldn't call one any other way. With mobile ordering, you no longer had to stand in line and talk to a human being to obtain your food. With the quick-response (QR) code, you no longer had to read informational signs and maps and commit their contents to memory. The message was increasingly clear: If you wanted to participate in the modern economy, you had better buy a smartphone.

The pandemic only accelerated this trend. With businesses from museums to pubs concerned about minimizing human contact as much as possible, the smartphone presented itself as a one-size-fits-all solution. Suddenly there was a QR code for everything, directing customers straight to the app store to download a tailor-made app that would enable them to order food or buy tickets without ever interacting with an actual person. Soon every store and franchise had developed a unique app that all customers were required to download.

These were understandable as pandemic measures, but like masks and outdoor meetings, one could look forward to ditching them as soon as it was safe to do so. The QR-code menu and "download our app" requirement, however, appear to be here to stay. Indeed, in many quarters of the market, smartphone dependence is only increasing.

This trend makes sense, especially in a tight labor market: A one-time expenditure on developing an app will often be far more economical than perpetual expenses related to employing wait staff or salespeople. The mediation of all goods and services through the smartphone also ensures that every business, however large or small, can cash in on the data economy, compiling detailed information on its customers and sending them notifications to keep them coming back for more. As Tim Wu put it in his book The Attention Merchants, this "fourth screen" has become "the undisputed new frontier of attention harvesting in the twenty-first century....From now on, whither thou goest, your smartphone goes too."

Seventeen years into the iPhone era, the smartphone has transformed from a consumer choice into a social "passport" — an indispensable tool for participation in today's economy. This bears out in the data: The World Economic Forum found that mobile-phone use rose by 460% over 10 years, from an average daily use of 45 minutes in 2011 to 252 minutes (four hours and 12 minutes) in 2021.

One might reasonably ask whether the smartphone differs from any other technological innovation. After all, new technologies often become pervasive, gradually reordering social and economic relations around themselves so that the cost of non-adoption becomes social exclusion. Once upon a time, for instance, you had a choice as to whether to electrify your house or use a telephone; both have since become prerequisites for participation in modern society. Why should the smartphone not follow the same trajectory? Who wouldn't want a smartphone, anyway?

In fact, quite a few people now want to opt out. As evidence of the devastating effects of digital addiction has become impossible to ignore, many consumers are exploring a return to "dumb phones" or trying out minimal phone models like the Light Phone, Wisephone, BoringPhone, Gabb phone, and Punkt phone. Parents want to shield their children by delaying smartphone use. Many more people might wish to ditch their smartphones but find that their employers or educational institutions have made it all but impossible to do so.

One professor recounted to us how he started every academic year by holding up his smartphone and asking a question to each new crop of freshmen: "Do you think these are making your life better?" This year, for the first time, not a single student raised his hand. Perhaps there are good reasons why we might not want to live in a society that requires every employee or customer to carry around a handheld surveillance device with ready access to addictive distractions. If market pressures continue to drive Americans inexorably toward smartphone hegemony, however, they must appeal to their elected representatives to use public policy as a tool for preserving consumer choice in this all-important area.

Because smartphones are demonstrably harmful, legislatures should ensure they do not become mandatory for participation in society, especially for children. This is a bold ambition given the seemingly inevitable march of digitization, but it is certainly not unprecedented; just because a new technology is more efficient does not mean society has to adopt it or make it virtually compulsory. Truly universal surveillance or mandatory vaccination might be more efficient than what we have now, but Americans have rightly resisted moves in these directions. No sooner did countries develop nuclear weapons than we began looking for ways to make them less accessible and less usable.

Perhaps the best analogue, though, is the automobile: a great tool for extending human freedom, yet a peril to freedom if Americans allowed their cities to develop in such a way that no one could survive without a car. Thus, we used public policy to require sidewalks and bike lanes, and developed affordable modes of public transportation. As Amusing Ourselves to Death author Neil Postman wrote, more important than what a new technology does is what it undoes. Culture always pays a price for technology unless we govern its use.

Left to itself, the market will always pursue the most efficient outcome. Yet this is not necessarily the most humane outcome, or the one that consumers themselves would choose. The smartphone is indeed a powerful and valuable tool, and it is clearly not going away. But that doesn't mean we should allow this tool to become a tyrant. We should not accept a world in which consumers and parents have no choice but to own one; we must push back.


In what sense, exactly, has the smartphone become a social passport? Put simply, society is dangerously near the point — and indeed for people in certain contexts and careers, has passed the point — where individuals no longer have any meaningful choice but to buy a smartphone to participate in the everyday activities of life. To leave your doorstep in the morning without a smartphone in your pocket is now almost as practically debilitating as leaving without pants on. In fact, it might be more so; at least you can still park your car in a city without wearing pants.

Smartphones have become so indispensable that it can be difficult to think of something one can do without one. Consider everyday commuting and shopping, beginning with the familiar urban chore of parking. To be sure, it might be more convenient to pay for parking using an app rather than a meter or pay station. In many cities, however, this convenience is quickly morphing into a requirement as parking garages do away with machines or attendants and replace them with QR codes. At one downtown D.C. garage, one of the authors was confronted with a flesh-and-blood parking attendant whose sole function was to text each driver a link to pay via smartphone. When he protested that he couldn't do that and asked if he could just pay by card, he was told he'd need to find somewhere else to park.

As for grabbing a bite to eat, figuring out parking may be just the first hurdle. Many restaurants now expect customers to browse menus and place their orders via QR code. Some have not yet gone all the way with this but instead have introduced a two-tier system whereby those placing mobile orders are ensured priority service while others who show up to order in person are sent to the back of the line. Those shopping for groceries might encounter a similar form of discrimination: a discount price for those who have downloaded the store's app and digital coupons; a higher price for everyone else. This innovation hits the elderly particularly hard — they are used to clipping paper coupons and are unlikely to have mastered the new app-based systems. Indeed, as only 61% of adults aged 65 and older own a smartphone, its transformation into a social passport is quickly becoming a form of age discrimination.

Such difficulties multiply as one moves beyond the regular daily rhythms of life and attempts to travel. Seeking to cut labor costs, some state parks are replacing ticket attendants with payment apps. Travelers who'd like to retreat to the wilderness thus need to take a smartphone along with them (and hope they receive cell service). Stadiums and event venues are increasingly moving to smartphone-only ticketing. United Airlines recently introduced smartphone-only onboard refreshment purchases, explaining the change in an in-flight magazine that also featured an article boasting that United was taking broad steps to improve accessibility for the blind in an effort to become "an airline for everyone."

Harder to justify (except perhaps on environmental grounds) is the near complete disappearance of paper maps from parks, zoos, and resorts. To navigate such unfamiliar sites, patrons are now routinely required to scan a QR code and download an app. For families, this "convenience" turns out to be anything but. Parents used to hand their older kids a map and tell them something like, "yes, you can go on that ride, but meet us at this spot at 2 p.m." Now everyone has to stick together — or else each child needs to have his own smartphone. When families get back to their Airbnb exhausted and ready to crash, they may find that the owners have made the property accessible only through the August Smart Lock app.

If these were the only complaints, skeptics might dismiss them as the needless griping of technophobes. But the problems extend far beyond vacationing and shopping. Increasingly, many apartment tenants face the same issue as Airbnb guests: app-only access to their homes using Geokey. Of course, they would not be able to afford an apartment in the first place without gainful employment, which also increasingly presupposes smartphone ownership. Some employees are required to clock in and out of their jobs using a certain app. Others, especially in white-collar professions, are required to use two-factor authentication (2FA) many times each day to access platforms required to complete their work. While until recently a phone with text-messaging capability was all one needed for 2FA, many platforms now use apps like Google Authenticator, making a smartphone a prerequisite for employment.

Within civil society more broadly, the same pattern is at work. At many colleges and universities, learning-management systems require both students and faculty members to post and obtain information, or even access their email, through smartphone apps. One friend of ours who recently checked in to the hospital for cancer treatment was given two options: "Smartphone check-in" or "Scan QR code at registration." Respondents to our X (formerly Twitter) post about this phenomenon reported that some community pools require smartphones for access. For young teens to participate in school sports, they (and their parents) may be required to download apps like Hudl.

Perhaps the most sobering development is that governments themselves have begun to follow the private sector's lead, meaning the smartphone is no longer just a metaphorical passport, but an increasingly literal one. During the pandemic, Canadians seeking to reenter their country were required to show vaccination status using the ArriveCAN app. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security rolled out an app called CBP One "to provide the public a single portal to a variety of [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] services." The app "will eventually replace and upgrade existing CBP public-facing mobile applications to improve user interaction and services." That sounds very convenient — who wants to keep track of all those paper forms? Well, perhaps the occasional refugee who forgot to bring a smartphone along when he fled for his life. CBP One is mandatory even for asylum seekers — an extraordinary move that Amnesty International says violates international human-rights law.

Many conservatives might be skeptical of appeals to such laws, but these trends will likely not stop with international travel. The world could look quite different in just a few years, with paper tickets vanished from airports and train stations and drivers' licenses replaced by digital ones.

Again, with smartphones now accounting for at least 85% of the U.S. mobile-phone market, such complaints might seem quaint or hypothetical: If almost everyone has a smartphone, who cares if businesses or governments require them?

But before we accept this future by default, we should pause to ask whether there might be any downsides. After all, smartphone use comes with disadvantages as well as advantages — bolstering the case for granting individuals more freedom to decide whether to buy smartphones for themselves and their children.


For many adults today, the smartphone has become less a blessing than a curse. They find themselves constantly distracted, anxious, and disconnected from their physical surroundings, diving down rabbit holes of addictive content they would rather avoid. For children — whose brains are still developing and highly plastic, and thus less able to resist impulses or manage emotions — the smartphone is proving not merely a nuisance, but a menace.

Smartphones can addict the brain like the most powerful of drugs. They can take users virtually anywhere — including into unsafe spaces like virtual casinos and strip clubs. They distract us from work and school, and hamper our ability to form relationships with others. And they allow adult predators to gain access to children. Alarmingly, 88% of teens ages 13 to 18 own a smartphone, as well as 43% of 8- to 12-year-olds. As Brian Chen noted in the New York Times, there has been a downward age creep for smartphone ownership: On average, children are receiving their first smartphone around age 10.

As smartphones have become ubiquitous among tweens and teens, the well-being of these populations has correspondingly declined. In a new study on smartphones and mental health, Sapiens Labs observed a clear global deterioration in the mental health of younger generations beginning just after 2010 — the year the smartphone became dominant. The study asked whether "those young adults who got their first smartphone at age 6 [were] doing worse than those who didn't get one until age 13 or 18." Its emphatic conclusion was yes — in fact, the younger the age of first smartphone use, the worse the mental-health outcomes were over time.

Most alarmingly, of all the negative mental-health outcomes measured, the one that rose most steeply with younger ages of first smartphone use was suicidal thoughts. As the authors observed, "[t]he virtual world eliminates important and essential...sensory modalities of human social interaction and bonding"; it is therefore "not an equivalent substitute" for the real world. The loneliness and social disconnection that result are both strong predictors of suicide risk.

Psychologist Jean Twenge's research supports similar conclusions. Citing data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse's Monitoring the Future survey, she found that

[t]eens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy. There's not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.

Smartphones sell themselves as tools that can keep us more connected, but in reality, they have made us more isolated than ever before. One 2013 study found that individuals who became acquainted through smartphones struggled to connect to one another. Indeed, the data suggested that smartphones' mere presence disrupted human relationships. These findings make intuitive sense: Even when not in use, smartphones remind us of the world beyond the person we are with and the conversation we are having. They also make it difficult for us to relate to each other in person, stunting our social skills and our ability to form meaningful relationships. This is especially true for children, who are still learning to relate to and build connections with other human beings.

Smartphones have also weaponized temptation. Children and teens are only a few clicks or swipes away from distracting games, social-media platforms, pornography, online bullies, sexting, and adults manipulating apps to gain access to minors. Jesse Weinberger, an internet-safety expert, put it this way: "There's no connection to the dark side without the device." The smartphone is bringing that dark side increasingly close to children: A 2018 JAMA Pediatrics study of 12- to 17-year-olds found that around one in four teens are receiving sexually explicit texts and emails, and about one in seven are sending sexts.

Additional harms from smartphones stem from their ability to disrupt children's education. Children's elementary- and middle-school years are supposed to establish a solid foundation for their future academic success. Now, the constant smartphone-induced distraction during the school day is paving a path for poor performance. A 2017 study found that smartphones reduce a person's cognitive capacity and test-taking brainpower. As the authors noted, "the mere presence of one's smartphone may impose a 'brain drain' as limited-capacity attentional resources are recruited to inhibit automatic attention to one's phone, and are thus unavailable for engaging with the task at hand." This means that even if a child is not actively using a smartphone during class, simply having it on his person or nearby reduces his cognitive capacity to learn.

The data are clear: Smartphones are harmful to children's well-being. They pose a real threat to the future welfare of America's children and families.

In response to this overwhelming evidence of harm, some might propose parental controls as adequate solutions. This approach would be hard to sustain in a world where QR-code and app-based services are the norm — the most effective parental controls will not allow these links to open or apps to download.

Parental-control apps can't catch everything. TikTok and Snapchat do not grant access to outside apps. Instagram allows parents to supervise their teen's main feed but not his direct messages unless he agrees to set up a "supervised account," which he can opt out of at any time. Direct messages are where dangerous activity often takes place — indeed, any app can pose a threat if it has direct-messaging capabilities. YouVersion's Bible app inadvertently became a "shadow social media" platform when adults began reaching out to children via the app's "community" feature. These adults could then send and receive illicit content from those children through the app's "scripture image" feature, which allows users to share images from their camera roll with other users.

Even standard industry parental-control tools, like Apple's Screen Time, have turned out to be notoriously buggy, often failing to block unwanted content. And even if these controls were effective, they expire when the child turns 13. In the meantime, tech-savvy kids can find all sorts of loopholes and workarounds. All of this creates enormous challenges for parents who would like to monitor their child's smartphone activity.

Compounding these problems is the fact that parents themselves also struggle with self-control around smartphones. Smartphones are not as dangerous for adults as they are for children, as adults are more capable of regulating their habits. But let's face it: Most of us are addicted, too. Many of the studies mentioned above apply to adults, highlighting how smartphones have reduced our cognitive capacity to perform other tasks and hindered our ability to form meaningful relationships.

Adult smartphone use is also harmful to children. To escape the tantrums of a toddler, all a parent needs to do is pull out a phone from his pocket. One study found that caregivers highly absorbed in their phones often responded harshly to children's misbehavior. This is hardly a recipe for healthy parenting.

Another recent study from the University of California, Santa Barbara, demonstrated that parents' smartphone use adversely affected their children's emotional intelligence. While using their phones, parents have "still face" — "an expressionless appearance that's often interpreted as depression, which can further impact a child's development of emotional skills." Other researchers discovered a link between parents' smartphone use and young children's problematic behaviors, from tantrums and aggression to anxiety and social withdrawal. Yet another study from the Wheatley Institute found that "adolescents are nearly four times as likely to be depressed if their parents are high level social media users."

The bottom line is that adults set an example for children. How do parents tell kids they can't have a smartphone when every adult they see is glued to his device? Many Americans will continue to own smartphones, of course. But we might also want the freedom to model healthy behavior by leaving them at home from time to time — a choice the marketplace is increasingly intent on denying us.

For those with and without children, a further reason to be concerned about mandatory smartphone use is the rise of "surveillance capitalism." Shoshana Zuboff coined this term in a 2019 book by the same name; she documented at length how Big Tech built its business model on the systematic tracking of user behavior, which enabled it to create predictive algorithms that would command top dollar from advertisers. New privacy regulations in many Western countries have forced giants like Apple, Alphabet, and Meta to back away from the most sweeping forms of user surveillance, but aside from the craftiest users, smartphone ownership means accepting a level of comprehensive 24/7 surveillance beyond the wildest dreams of 20th-century totalitarian-state leaders. If you use GPS, Apple Pay, and (like most smartphone owners) take oodles of pictures, you are effectively consenting to the creation of a digital map of all your movements, purchasing habits, and social circles. From this virtual map, algorithms can deduce dozens of other conclusions about your political preferences, emotional states, guilty pleasures, and far more.

At the same time, every local business from Chick-fil-A to the mom-and-pop bookstore is aggressively adopting smaller-scale forms of surveillance capitalism. Before the smartphone era, a business could only entice customers to return by offering them a wonderful shopping experience and hoping for the best. Some had mailing lists or loyalty programs through which they could send customers coupons and advertisements in the mail (and later via email). But unless customers went out of their way to sign up, local businesses could not do much to reach them aside from placing ads on billboards or in the local paper.

Today, however, every business seems to have its own app that logs customers' shopping preferences and generates tailored advertising that will bombard them with push notifications if they take too long to return. By mediating once-analog transactions through the smartphone, businesses can now ensure that any customer who so much as wanders into their store may be permanently added to their database.

This is not an evil practice; it's perfectly rational for businesses to use technological innovations to reach more customers. Indeed, many customers might be more than happy to trade their freedom and privacy for such convenience. Some likely relish the new shopping experiences and personalized recommendations these devices make possible. At least some of us, though, long for the return of a bygone world where we could buy a cup of coffee or a pair of shoes without entering into a long-term relationship with every place of business we encounter.


Smartphones are clearly here to stay. But because the harms documented above are all but inescapable in our increasingly digital world, elected officials will need to step in to support individuals, families, and communities who wish to limit their use of smartphones or avoid them altogether.

Those of us on the right might normally prefer to leave such decisions to the free market. Yet the market does not appear inclined to preserve the freedom of those who choose not to use smartphones. Instead, a new standard is emerging — one in which motives of cost efficiency, customer retention, and good old-fashioned herd mentality conspire to pressure consumers to either embrace a 24/7 smartphone lifestyle or be shut out of the modern economy. A forceful response from legislators is thus necessary to preserve consumer choice in the phone market and help parents protect their children from harm.

The particular challenge posed by smartphones is new, but broader precedents for protecting consumers are not hard to find. Indeed, consumer welfare has served as a guiding principle of American law for much of the last century. Laws in many areas have expanded consumer choice and mitigated consumer harms. And while conservatives might have opposed many of these laws as bureaucratic overreaches, most of them are not going to be repealed anytime soon — we might as well use them to defend the goods conservatives value, including familial well-being and virtuous self-restraint, for the time being.

One analogue that could provide direct legal precedent for the kind of regulation we propose is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). This law, which built on the 1964 Civil Rights Act and passed the House by an overwhelming margin (377-28), embodied Americans' collective intuition that we should aid individuals who are, through no fault of their own, excluded from full participation in the ordinary relations and exchanges of civil society. Accordingly, Title III of the ADA requires that any places of "public accommodation" (a broad category that includes restaurants, hotels, libraries, grocery stores, laundromats, parks, and much more) make every reasonable effort to provide equal access to individuals suffering from a wide range of physical and mental disabilities.

The ADA is often associated with conditions like blindness and paraplegia, but its reach is significantly broader than that, encompassing conditions like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression. Given that smartphone addiction itself is increasingly being diagnosed and treated as a clinical disorder, it's not a stretch to suggest that the ADA on its face requires businesses to accommodate people who don't use smartphones.

Even if one were to object to classifying compulsive smartphone use as an addiction, smartphones have been linked to mental disabilities that the ADA already covers. Schools and universities in recent years have granted broader accommodations for students suffering from such ADA-covered conditions as anxiety, depression, and ADHD. At the same time, those students are often required to use the devices that help drive these very maladies. Surely if the ADA requires universities to provide alternative testing arrangements for a student diagnosed with anxiety or depression, it should also require them to provide alternative arrangements for students with regard to devices that trigger or exacerbate those conditions. Similarly, the ADA's Title I protections for employees would suggest that employment procedures requiring staff to carry their own personal smartphones are a form of unlawful discrimination as well.

Lawyers might respond by noting that the extent to which ADA requirements apply to websites and apps remains unclear (though recent cases, such as Robles v. Domino's Pizza, suggest the statute may apply to digital platforms). Our point here, however, is not to insist that accessibility requirements extend into the digital realm: If courts decide that brick-and-mortar stores must be handicapped accessible but their apps need not be, fair enough. But if judges were to rule this way and allow stores to make their services accessible exclusively to smartphone users, they would radically undercut the ADA's purpose.

To protect the most vulnerable in our society — notably the elderly (who may not be tech-savvy) and the under age (whom it would be wise to safeguard from smartphone saturation) — federal officials should adopt laws that prevent places of public accommodation from requiring customers to use digital platforms to access analog goods and services. Such measures would address a matter of public interest and be consistent with legal precedents.

A more incremental approach would involve expanding state-level public-accommodation laws. States enacted these laws during and after the civil-rights era to prevent invidious discrimination in places open to the general public. Although the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in such places based on only four categories — "race, color, religion, or national origin" — states have added other categories to their own lists. For example, 18 states prohibit discrimination based on marital status, 25 do so based on sexual orientation, 20 based on age, five based on pregnancy or childbirth, and three based on veteran status. State lawmakers could amend these statutes to include smartphone ownership as an additional protected category. Since amending state-level statutes is easier than altering federal civil-rights laws, a state-by-state strategy may protect more non-users more quickly than would one that targets federal law.

Some conservatives might object to these amendments, arguing that the regulatory tradition stemming from the Civil Rights Act and the ADA has stifled innovation, overburdened private businesses, and expanded the administrative state. Such skepticism is understandable. Yet even those with more libertarian inclinations can recognize that there are cases where the state must step in to protect consumers' freedom.

One such case that garnered broad support on the right in recent years was the dispute over private-sector vaccine mandates during the pandemic. When Covid-19 vaccines became widely available in 2021, tens of thousands of private-sector businesses — many of them qualifying as places of public accommodation — adopted rules stating that individuals could only enter their premises or access their services (or remain employed) if they carried proof of vaccination status. In many cases, establishments did this without coordination or collusion; they simply followed the path of least resistance and bowed to employees' demands. One could argue that they were entirely within their rights as private businesses to do so. And if only a handful of businesses had followed suit, it would not have been a problem.

Collectively, however, such requirements threatened to turn a vaccination card into a social passport — a condition for continued participation in civil society. Given that many individuals harbored serious concerns about the health risks or ethics of the vaccines, conservatives and libertarians recognized the need to fight back and protect the freedom of both consumers and employees.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis led the way on this front with Executive Order 21-81, which declared:

Whereas, requiring so-called COVID-19 vaccine passports for taking part in everyday life — such as attending a sporting event, patronizing a restaurant, or going to a movie theater — would create two classes of citizens based on vaccination; and whereas, it is necessary to protect the fundamental rights and privacies of Floridians and the free flow of commerce within the state...[b]usinesses in Florida are prohibited from requiring patrons or customers to provide any documentation certifying COVID-19 gain access to, entry upon, or service from the business.

This executive order (and legislation codifying it) easily stood up to legal challenge. So what's to stop other governors from protecting their constituents' right to take part in everyday life without having to carry a smartphone?

Indeed, one could argue that vaccine passports are far more justifiable than smartphone passports. The stated rationale for the former, at least, was protecting the health and safety of the business's own employees. For the latter, the implicit rationale is often to avoid having to hire employees at all. If those on the right could mobilize to resist private tyranny in the case of vaccines, they can (and should) similarly join one another in resisting the slow but inexorable creep of private despotism in the form of smartphone requirements.

Although prohibiting smartphone mandates would be a common-sense reform, it would still likely encounter vigorous opposition from most sectors of private industry. In the short term, then, legislators might have more success if they focus more narrowly on protecting children from the harms of these devices. There are solid precedents for this type of regulation: Whatever your views on gun control, almost no one opposes limiting firearm purchases to adults. Similarly, in recognizing that children are not mature enough to operate automobiles in a safe manner, states imposed age thresholds for driving and later adopted licensing systems that require proper training before one may be granted a driver's license.

Now that years of research findings have revealed the dangers that smartphones pose to children, the government should adopt restrictions on their use by minors in a similar manner. Such constraints might include an age limit or certification requirement for purchase and ownership. More modest regulations could require smartphone producers to offer more robust built-in parental controls, effectively converting smartphones into Light Phones by default until the user turns 18.

If such measures sound fanciful in a political environment where age certifications for hard-core porn websites are facing legal challenges, Americans could at least insist that public institutions stop actively conspiring with the market to turn smartphones into social passports for children. Public schools, for instance, currently contribute to the problem: They enthusiastically bring technology into the classroom and require app-based access to school sports and activities. Many private schools, however, have implemented policies that ban phones at school — to the delight of parents and teachers alike.

Public schools can and should do likewise. Governments at every level could incentivize smartphone bans by tying public-school funding to bans on smartphone use during the school day. By pushing back against the market's indifference to children's well-being, such regulations could also help reverse the trend of smartphones becoming social passports in the private sector.

Parents certainly do their best to limit their children's use of smartphones. But because of the network effects these devices create, parental efforts on their own are not enough to shield children from harm. In the same way that roadways full of reckless and under-age drivers pose a risk to the public at large, those who use smartphones irresponsibly endanger children who may not use smartphones themselves. Policy changes are thus required to mitigate the toxic network effects of smartphones by limiting or discouraging their use until children reach an age at which they can more responsibly handle the pressures of these devices.


The rise of smartphones in the past decade converged with two troubling trends in modern society. The first was the rise of a libertarian ideology on both the left and the right holding that the more information, the more access, the more openness we have, the better. Proponents of this view consider the slightest barriers to information access intolerable forms of oppression or censorship. If we put the whole world at the people's fingertips, they ask, what could possibly go wrong?

Quite a bit, it turned out: nine-year-olds hooked on porn, 16-year-olds slitting their wrists, and a society harried by perpetual anxiety and locked in thumb-war shouting matches.

The second trend, identified by Joshua Mitchell, is our tendency to turn supplements into substitutes — a pattern he dubbed "substitutism." Americans, explains Mitchell, have accustomed themselves to an economic routine in which a new product is developed to meet a narrow need (e.g., opioids to ease pain, plastic water bottles to keep us hydrated on the go), but then quickly becomes a supplement to the existing goods that make up the warp and woof of our lives. This product is then used to meet more and more "needs" (many of them manufactured by the market itself) and finally brought in as a full substitute for whatever humane activity we used to engage in.

The expansion of smartphones into every corner of society represents perhaps the most jarring example of substitutism yet. Public and private institutions are asking people to accept a world in which a handheld device takes the place of thousands of quotidian forms of formerly face-to-face interaction. What's more, they are doing so at a time when that device is designed to maximize its addictive qualities and minimize any built-in guardrails. This is akin to making automobiles mandatory while building cars without brakes and handing the keys to kids. Americans are sensible enough to keep high-risk products like alcohol and tobacco out of the hands of minors, but when it comes to the equally dangerous smartphone, adults effectively tell children they will not be able to get by without one.

A sane public-policy response would focus on at least one of two targets: smartphone and app developers, by requiring them to make these products far less hazardous and less accessible to children; and the rest of the marketplace, by banning businesses and government agencies from limiting access to their services to smartphone users. The best path forward will likely include elements of both.

There is nothing new or un-American about such responses, nor need they destroy liberty. Public officials restricted the purchase of tobacco products while requiring private businesses to protect customers from second-hand smoke, but adults are still free to smoke, and tobacco companies still make money. Regulators subjected automobiles to age and licensing requirements and adopted rules to protect pedestrian and bicycle access to urban centers, but Americans are still free to purchase and drive cars, and automobile manufacturers remain solidly profitable.

A world in which smartphones are more difficult for children to access, in which burgers and concert tickets are easier to purchase without this device, need not be a big-government dystopia. It is unlikely to come into being, however, without prudent government action. Some problems are simply too widespread, have gained too much momentum, or are too nearly inescapable for individual families, community institutions, or businesses to overcome them on their own. The soft tyranny of the smartphone is one such problem. In these situations, the state's role is to step in and protect the traditions, institutions, and values of society that new technologies threaten to erode and supplant.

All Americans have a role to play in resisting this tyranny. In our families and our communities, we must work to create more tech-free spaces rather than more tech-dependent ones. And in politics, we must fight it using all the tools of public policy at our disposal.

Brad Littlejohn is a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC) and former president of the Davenant Institute.

Clare Morell is a senior policy analyst at EPPC, where she directs the center’s Technology and Human Flourishing Project.


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