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Why a ’90s Democrat would be shocked by Gavin Newsom’s smartphone idea

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When California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out an ambitious, if hazy, plan Tuesday to remove smartphones from public classrooms in the interest of kids’ safety, it marked a turnaround that would have shocked any hyper-ambitious Democratic politician from a generation ago.

“Connecting kids” was once an obvious political winner. In a 1990s photo op, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore physically unspooled the wires that would connect children to the internet in a California high school. Initiatives like “One Laptop per Child,” the brainchild of MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, popularized the idea that to instill digital fluency in children was to prepare them for tomorrow’s global economy.

Now, the mark of political ambition is to pry those tiny computers out of kids’ hands.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wants to slap tobacco-style “warning labels” on social media platforms. It’s surprisingly bipartisan, too: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently banned children under 14 from social media in his state.

For people serious about the policies, the new moves raise big questions around what the government can even do. There’s no way to put a surgeon general’s warning label on social media without Congress passing a law, and Congress doesn’t seem interested. In schools, meanwhile, the issue is enforcement. A recent survey from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 76 percent of schools already ban smartphone use for non-academic reasons during school hours —- but the rules largely lack teeth, something Newsom has yet to address.

For anyone watching the ebb and flow of American politics, the picture is a little clearer. It’s not as simple as Big Tech going from economic hero to a useful bipartisan punching bag — though that’s surely true.

The story is now much less about the connections than about what’s coming through them.

When Clinton and Gore were laying those wires, there was a widespread consensus that what was traveling across them and onto children’s computers was (usually) good: Information about science, history, geopolitics and technology that would enlighten them beyond the capacity of their local schools.

Now, online content is a consumer product, and one designed to be addictive. Politicians like former Vice President Mike Pence are calling social media platforms “digital fentanyl.” The future of education, and even parenting itself, could depend on how Americans respond to this changing understanding of what comes into their children’s lives via the internet.

The specific backlash against technology for kids has been brewing for some time, whether due to unsatisfactory Covid-era remote schooling experiments, the growing body of evidence about the harms of a digital-first social life for young people or a fear of outright exploitation.

“Why is it that we have failed to respond to the harms of social media when they are no less urgent or widespread than those posed by unsafe cars, planes or food?” Murthy asked in his New York Times op-ed calling for the warning labels. “These harms are not a failure of willpower and parenting; they are the consequence of unleashing powerful technology without adequate safety measures, transparency or accountability.”

The expert consensus isn’t quite as strong as you might think — researchers continue to debate the extent to which social media bears the blame for increasingly poor mental health and social outcomes for young people. But nearly all agree that something needs to change.

There’s far less consensus on what that change would actually look like.

For one, there’s the odd-couple political dynamic on display between figures like Newsom and DeSantis. The bipartisan “techlash” is a familiar theme in Congress, but one that’s resulted in vanishingly little actual legislation to rein in Big Tech. POLITICO’s Ruth Reader and Rebecca Kern reported on the Murthy push for warning labels and the future of similar legislation in Congress, quoting one veteran of the industry as saying “I don’t think they’ll be able to get bipartisan support.”

Executive agencies and state governments seem for now to be the locus of real action around shaping kids’ digital future: See not just Newsom and DeSantis’ bans, but the Biden administration’s extremely busy antitrust enforcers.

But there’s only so much executives can do, absent writing actual law: Business Insider’s Katie Notopoulos compared Murthy’s effort to the 1980s push for parental advisory labels on explicit music, writing that “A surgeon general warning label that pops up when you open Instagram is probably going to be annoying, but it can’t really hurt… I am skeptical of how effective it will actually be, and how much political capital might be wasted on this instead of the hard, unfun work of coming up with regulations on social platforms that are actually effective.”

That framing also suggests a different possible future for kids and computers that recalls a much more down-to-earth policy front: food.

When evidence of the childhood obesity epidemic became apparent in the 1990s and early 2000s, a slew of initiatives rose to combat it, like former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s posted calorie counts (and failed soda ban) and former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program, much loathed and derided on the right, promoting fitness in public schools.

To some extent diet became a policy issue imposed from the top down, but it also became a cultural issue, where one’s preferences and choices for their families and children were a direct reflection of their values. That’s already begun with computers, especially the endless debates among parents over the appropriate amount of “screen time” for a child.

In a recent New Yorker story about the smash success of the blankly hypnotic toddlers’ program “CocoMelon,” Jia Tolentino wrote: “I often feel that the anxiety I have about my kids’ screen time comes mainly from sublimated disappointment in myself… When it comes to the shows we allow our children to watch, we are afraid of — what, exactly? That our kids’ capacity for deep thought will be blunted by compulsive screen use? That they’ll lose their ability to sit with the plain fact of existence, to pay attention to the world as it is, to conceive of new possibilities? That they’ll grow up to be just like us, only worse?”

Lawmakers, tech critics and parents alike can’t predict that future any more than their parents, in a pre-internet era, could have foreseen one where you are most likely reading this with your neck craned down to your phone on your way home from a long workday. But given that children’s safety is one of the vanishing few issues that still reliably get lawmakers working across the political divide, efforts like Newsom and DeSantis’ are likely to be a recurring feature of whatever comes next.

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