The proposed legislation was never meant to be taken seriously, said John Rodgers, a Vermont state senator and fierce gun rights advocate.
“In light of the dangerous and life-threatening consequences of cellphone use by young people, it is clear that persons under 21 years of age are not developmentally mature enough to safely possess them,” Rodgers wrote in a bill this month proposing to outlaw the use of cellphones by anyone under 21.
It was in part, he said, a rebuke of a law Vermont passed in 2018 that banned the sale of firearms to most people under 21 and an attempt to show the absurdity of allowing 18-year-olds to go to war but forbidding them from enjoying the constitutional rights and vices afforded to older Americans.
Rodgers, who said his family had been hunting the woods of the Northeast Kingdom since the 1800s, was quickly bombarded with angry tweets, emails and calls to his home that accused him of trying to create a nanny state. His critics missed the point, he said.
“There are all these pushes around some parts of the country for 16-year-olds to vote, but we’re saying they’re not mature enough to smoke or purchase a gun. So which is it?” said Rodgers. “When are you really an adult?”
When are we truly grown up?
It is a question that has possessed both poets and lawmakers.
But there is not much clarity in state laws. In Alaska, teenagers as young as 14 can get married with a court order. Only a handful of states allow drinking under 21, and that is under strict circumstances, like when a parent or legal guardian is present.
Eighteen-year-old adults can run for office, go to strip clubs, be sentenced to life in prison and volunteer to go to war or be drafted, but as of December, they cannot vape or smoke tobacco products.
And since 1984, when states began raising the legal age of drinking to 21 from 18 in exchange for federal highway funds — in some cases barely a decade after lowering it — they have not been able to buy a beer at a bar in most of the United States, a restriction that has infuriated college students ever since.
“If 18-year-olds are burdened with the responsibility of adulthood, they should be afforded some of its privileges,” said Charlotte Lawson, a 21-year-old fourth-year student at the University of Virginia who wrote an opinion piece in the campus paper in 2018 calling for the drinking age to be lowered from 21.
“It’s interesting these are people who work full-time jobs, pay their own rent, pay taxes and are eligible to vote,” she said. “Yet none of this constitutes adequate proof that a person is responsible enough to drink.”
Why are these laws all over the place?
Most laws that govern age restrictions are set by the states.
For much of the 20th century, the minimum age for drinking in the United States dovetailed with the voting age, said Jonathan Parent, a professor of political science at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.
After the end of Prohibition in 1933, most states set the drinking age at 21, which was also the minimum voting age at the time.
Lawmakers reasoned that if you were old enough to vote, you were old enough to drink, Parent said.
That philosophy continued in 1971, when Congress lowered the voting age to 18 in response to fury over the draft during the Vietnam War, which conscripted thousands of men between 18 and 21 into war.
States, in turn, lowered the drinking age to 18, Parent said.
But in 1984, President Ronald Reagan began pushing hard for states to raise their drinking age, citing what he called a “great national problem” of drinking and driving by teenagers.
In July of that year, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which required states to raise the age of drinking to 21 or risk a 10% cut in their federal highway funds.
The law put the United States at odds with the rest of the Western world, where in some European countries people as young as 16 can drink wine and beer.
“It’s pretty unique to us,” Parent said. “It probably goes back to more of a Puritan idea in the United States. This is one of the only countries in the Western world that banned alcohol.”
When is an adult still a child?
It’s a question that Apryl Alexander, a psychology professor at the University of Denver, often gets from her graduate students and has become even more fraught with the growing research around the development of the juvenile brain.
“We don’t have a clear answer for them,” Alexander said. The scientific consensus that most brains do not fully develop until age 25 has led to a host of reforms in the criminal justice system and reexaminations about how society should punish young adults.
But it has also fed the confusion over what young adults should be allowed to do when scientists know that they use less restraint and discipline than older people, said Warren Binford, a law professor at Willamette University and founder of the school’s Child and Family Advocacy Clinic.
“We’re constantly trying to balance the rights to protection and the rights to participation,” Binford said. “We are a society that loves its liberty, but we’re also a society that recognizes that children are unique and special and deserving of protection.”
That tension can leave young people feeling disenfranchised and less likely to participate in civic life, said D. Scott Foster, who was 22 in 2010 when he ran successfully for City Council in Williamsburg, Virginia.
“They don’t see themselves as fit for those roles or having an impact,” said Foster, who is now 32. “If laws are skewed against young folks and public perception is skewed against young folks, it’s that much harder to get involved. It takes extra effort and willpower.”
Benming Zhang, who was elected to the Williamsburg City Council in 2016 during his final undergraduate year at William and Mary College in Virginia, said he was surprised to encounter more skepticism about his campaign from people his own age than older residents of the city.
“The first thing my classmates thought was, ‘Who is this kid who is running for office?’” said Zhang, now 25. “It’s that disconnect of seeing one of their own, a like-aged person, sitting on that dais with older, largely white male counterparts. Can we envision someone like us sitting on that dais?”