Apple on Monday responded to an open letter from investors who called for the company to address the negative impact of the iPhone on children and teens. Though the company listed a number of controls provided to help parents screen content, it offered little to address the investors’ chief concern: the amount of time teens and younger children spend on phones.
Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, which together have invested about US$2 billion in Apple, on Saturday published the letter, which urges Apple to give parents more choices and tools to help ensure that young consumers are using the company’s products “in an optimal manner.”
There is a growing body of evidence that frequent use of Apple’s products by young people could be having unintentional negative consequences, notes the letter, which is signed by Jana Managing Partner Barry Rosenstein and CalSTRS’ Director of Corporate Governance Anne Sheehan.
The average American teenager who uses a smartphone first obtains a phone at age 10 and spends more than 4.5 hours a day on it — excluding texting and talking, Rosenstein and Sheehan pointed out.
Seventy-eight percent of teens check their phones at least hourly, and 50 percent report feeling “addicted” to their phones, they added.
“It would defy common sense to argue that this level of usage, by children whose brains are still developing, is not having at least some impact, or that the maker of such a powerful product has no role to play in helping parents to ensure it is being used optimally,” Rosenstein and Sheehan wrote.
Apple touted its efforts to look after the interests of both kids and parents within its ecosystem in a statement released to the press on Monday.
The company’s operating system has built-in controls in its operating system that enable parents to control and restrict content, Apple said, including apps, movies, websites, songs and books.
Parents also can block or restrict cellular data usage, control passwords, and block kids from accessing or downloading anything online.
Apple keeps offensive content such as pornography out of its curated platforms, and it clearly labels apps, movies and songs to allow parents to judge age-appropriateness, the statement maintains.
Further, the company promised to add new, more robust features and functionality to its parent controls in the future.
Kudos for Investors
The Apple investors who called on the company to address the potential negative consequences of its mobile products won praise from James P. Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media.
“We are very pleased to see that leading shareholders have spoken out about their concerns for the health and safety of kids on cell phones and online,” he said. “It is a hugely important development for shareholders to take public action like this on digital addiction and inappropriate cellphone behavior.”
Apple should take a more proactive stance in addressing the issue of addiction, tweeted Tony Fadell, coinventor of the iPod and iPhone.
7/10 Apple Watches, Google Phones, Facebook, Twitter – they’ve gotten so good at getting us to go for another click, another dopamine hit. They now have a responsibility & need to start helping us track & manage our digital addictions across all usages – phone, laptop, TV etc. https://t.co/wWBQNMdsYK
— Tony Fadell (@tfadell) January 8, 2018
8/10 They’re the only ones who can do this – they own the OS & app ecosystem. They need to do more, like single-use device modes: when I’m reading an ebook on my tablet, listening to music (ala iPod)… no email or facebook notifications, no texts. https://t.co/wWBQNMdsYK
— Tony Fadell (@tfadell) January 8, 2018
‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’
Although Apple has broad shoulders, dropping the full weight of technology addiction on it may be a little unfair.
“The iPhone is not any more problematic than other handheld devices that provide access to social media and games,” said Timothy A. Pychyl, an associate professor in the psychology department at Carleton University.
“We are, as Neil Postman said, ‘amusing ourselves to death’ across many platforms,” he told BlueHillco.
“We waste a considerable amount of our lives playing with technology. By that, I don’t mean gaming per se, but in mindless clicking to view content that has no consequence to us other than entertainment,” Pychyl said. “These constant distractions are undermining our ability to move forward on our own goals and, as other researchers have pointed out, typically undermine our well being.”
Jonesing for a Screen
As earnest as Apple may be to offset the negative impact of technology on children’s lives, it may be an uphill battle.
“I don’t know if we can make technology less addictive,” observed Gregory Jantz, author of Ten Tips for Parenting the Smartphone Generation.
When tech addicts check in at Jantz’s treatment center, every device with a screen is quarantined, he told BlueHillco.
“About the second day, people start getting sweaty palms, headaches, upset digestion — their heart rate increases. They’re going through physical withdrawal, and they demand to have their devices back,” Jantz said.
“I don’t think it’s a fair expectation to expect Apple to deal with addiction,” he added. “Apple has done some great things with parental control on devices, but that’s not going to make them nonaddictive.”
A Software Problem
Use of the term “addiction” to describe obsessive smartphone behavior can be problematic, cautioned Joseph Lee, youth continuum medical director at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.
“Obsession with video games and Internet pornography is a closer parallel to what we see with substance use than text messaging or using an app,” he told BlueHillco.
“You can be conditioned to be compulsive about a lot of different behaviors, but addiction only starts to surface when those compulsive behaviors and preoccupation start to take you away from life priorities,” Lee explained.
Compulsive behavior is more a software than hardware problem, he added.
“It’s not about battery life or a fancy screen. It’s the things within that technology, like social media, that become very rewarding and habitual,” Lee said. “Those things come with strings attached. They influence people’s thinking, and they influence our national culture, and we’re not fully aware of the ramifications from that yet.”