A full decade into the revolution in connectivity brought about by the rise of mobile devices, two of Apple’s largest shareholders are now calling on the company to address the ways that heavy iPhone usage can negatively impact children, according to an Associated Press report via the Globe and Mail. Activist shareholder Jana Partners, along with the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, sent a letter Saturday asking the company to offer software that helps parents control their children’s iPhone usage.
The two investors also said that Apple should investigate the effects of heavy or excessive iPhone use on mental health more generally.
Jana Partners is a leading investor, and the CalSTRS is one of America’s foremost pension plans. Together, the investors control roughly $2 billion of Apple’s shares, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“There is a growing body of evidence that, for at least some of the most frequent young users, this may be having unintentional negative consequences,” according to the letter.
“Apple can play a defining role in signaling to the industry that paying special attention to the health and development of the next generation is both good business and the right thing to do…there is a developing consensus around the world including Silicon Valley that the potential long-term consequences of new technologies need to be factored in at the outset, and no company can outsource that responsibility.”
They offer a number of specific suggestions for Apple to address the issue. For one, they say the company should form a committee of experts that includes child development specialists. They also say the company should make its “vast information resources” available for independent research on the subject, and provide software options for parents to better control their children’s use of mobile devices.
The letter mentions studies that have shown that these devices distract from academics, and other studies have pointed to a connection to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues among young people.
The investors are right to raise these concerns. Not only is there significant evidence raising questions on the effect of mobile devices on public health, and on society in general. Apple also has the opportunity to stay ahead of the curve by addressing these issues before competitors do. With concern over mobile devices decidedly on the rise, the company should see this as an opportunity. If tech companies fail to address these issues, the questions could give way to a full-fledged backlash.
The letter and the new studies are not anomalies. They are part of a new wave of alarm over the way digital technology is impacting the culture, particularly when it comes to young people. A growing movement, Wait Until 8th, encourages parents to not provide children with smartphones until the 8th grade. According to the group’s website, devices rob children of the opportunity to play outdoors and socialize with others, present a constantly available distraction to schoolwork, and impair sleep, social relationships, increase anxiety and depression, and expose children to cyberbullying. Many of these claims are well supported by evidence.
One study last year showed that smartphone use before bedtime led to reduced quality and quantity of sleep. Data from the Centers for Disease Control demonstrates huge increases in suicide rates among teens, and experts have linked these alarming figures in part to the rise of mobile devices and social media.
Jean M. Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, wrote in the Atlantic last year that “the worst mental-health crisis in decades” is linked directly to the rise of iPhones. She goes on to write:
“The twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.”
Arianna Huffington, writing for NBC News, argued recently that technology has an alarming potential to create psychological distance between people spending time together, citing research that shows heavy use of social media (facilitated by mobile devices) can lead to depression, especially in younger people.
A 2016 CNN report detailed the ways that parents are already seeking to gain some degree of control over their kid’s near-constant use of mobile devices. Some are already paying monthly fees for software that can disable their children’s phones during certain hours. Most found that such efforts, even not allowing their teens to have phones at all, ultimately improved the quality of life not just for their kids, but for the whole family.
Apple’s success in the past two decades has largely stemmed from its ability to anticipate consumer demands and to stay one step ahead of the competition in meeting them. Now, the best way to do this may be to acknowledge that excessive use of mobile devices can be problematic for young people, and to help parents intervene. If Apple and other companies fail to offer any middle ground, parents and other consumers could refrain from buying the devices altogether.