Why bans don’t work…but a CALL for a ban may

Published: 7 June 2024

Bailiwick Data Protection Commissioner Brent Homan discusses mobile phones, social media and our children

There is an important conversation happening in the United Kingdom that has reached the shores of the Bailiwick. It has inspired thoughtful and, at times, strident debate amongst parents, educators and leaders, and orbits the central question: “should we ban the use of mobile phones and social media by children?”.

Heart-wrenching tragedies have contributed to the calls for a ban – including the senseless killing of Brianna Ghey. There is no disagreement that deliberate actions must be taken to enhance the protection of our children in the digital era. But are bans the panacea for the myriad of online perils? When asked last month by this paper, I said that the ODPA would not support an “all-out tech ban”, and here is why:

Bans don’t work….

Bans are very rarely an effective solution and typically make matters worse. They are difficult and costly to enforce and very easy to circumvent. It would have to be established who would be responsible for enforcing a mobile-phone or social-media ban on children. Would it be the police and how would that actually work?

More critically, with a ban you risk inflicting greater damage by driving youth underground to use social media in clandestine and more extreme manners, far away from the oversight of parents or teachers.

There is a behavioural term for such an effect called psychological reactance, coined by psychologist Jack Brehm. Basically, psychological reactance describes an individual’s response to lost or threatened freedoms that results in a strong internal impulse for them to engage in the very act that has become forbidden.

From a macro-level we have seen this in historic alcohol prohibitions, and from a micro-level we recognize this every time we set basic parental ground rules such as “don’t write on the walls with crayons”.
Plus, the first time you have injury or loss of a child because they couldn't contact someone via mobile phone in an emergency, then the very real risk of a ban would be revealed.

We must also think about what can be lost with a ban. We cannot turn a blind eye to the permanence and opportunity of today’s online landscape. The digital world is not going away and we need to prepare our children for it, seizing its benefits, which include connecting with others and learning, while mitigating its risks.

We don't want to forbid, and then unleash our youth online in an unprepared manner when they turn 16 or 18. As was noted in the April 20th edition of The Economist, 4/5 of the GenZ cohort are in emerging economies and thanks to the spread and growth of technology and access 12-27 year olds are far better off than their parents were.

Our children will need to compete in that global, technological world and we need to prepare them for that reality. And if you want to see a widening of the Gen Z gap with their parents with greater inter-generational disengagement, then “banning tech” could very well accomplish that. And bans risk unintentionally disenfranchising parents from their duty and responsibility to raise their children in the digital world.

…..but calls for a ban may

Does that mean that those “calling for a ban” are engaged in a futile endeavour? Absolutely not! We should applaud the strong and courageous voices of bereaved parents and concerned community leaders that have sounded this clarion call. It is often these very “ban calls” that act as catalysts for positive and enduring change. They elevate the priority of a matter on the public stage, encourage public discourse and provoke leaders in the government and business sectors to take meaningful action.

At the ODPA we have a multi-pronged approach to protecting children’s rights. This includes promoting the engagement, oversight and control of parents with their children’s online activities. This empowers us to do what we should always be doing - raising our children in a world of opportunities, aware of the risks, and teaching them how to navigate the digital landscape safely, responsibly and respectfully.

This also includes supporting educators in whatever parameters and restrictions they apply to schools and classrooms in order to promote a healthy and safe learning environment for all.

But parents and educators can’t bear this daunting challenge alone. Regulators and leaders need to hold social media companies to account and ensure they seriously up their game when it comes to child-protective controls. Ofcom’s recent call for effective age authentication, less exploitative algorithms and superior moderation is a call that all Data Protection Authorities should get behind.

The alarm has sounded and we have all been called upon to play our part in protecting our most precious resource, our children. At the end of the day, we can all agree on one universal point - inaction is not an option.