Bad Apple: shareholders call to end child smartphone addiction in open letter

An open letter, signed by Apple shareholders, has stressed the social and commercial importance of safeguarding children from the overuse of the brand’s devices

Jean Twenge, a researcher cited in the open letter, believes iPhones could be made safer for children with the introduction of parental controls into the iOS, such as the restriction of certain apps

The arrival of the New Year has inevitably sparked a wave of resolutions to ‘digitally detox’ in the months ahead. Data released last year revealed US consumers spent upwards of five hours per day on smartphones, so it’s perhaps unsurprising many are trying to shift their focus from screens to real-life experiences, with some even heading to luxury hotels that remove devices on entry.

As well as personal caps and hotel gimmicks, global warnings regarding the dangers of binge-using technological devices – a phenomenon often linked to the addictive qualities of social media – are mounting. At an Axios event in November, ex-Facebook President Sean Parker warned the platform exploits “a vulnerability in human psychology” with attention-grabbing functions that incite compulsive use. Children are the crux of the current debate, but it seems it will take more than a smartphone-free ‘detox’ week to tackle device addiction.

An open letter to Apple’s board of directors could represent a turning point in the conversation, however. Published on January 6 by shareholders Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, the letter urged Apple to do more to protect developing minds from the harmful effects of overusing its products.

With a combined stake of 0.2 percent – worth approximately $2bn – these are not the dystopian claims of ex-company whistle-blowers, but rather the intervention of parties heavily invested in Apple’s ongoing success. As such, social awareness is being framed by concerns of profitability.

From rumour to research
The growing public anxiety surrounding device addiction was captured by Parker when he commented to the Axios crowd: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” With this sentiment in mind, the authors of the letter partnered with leading researchers to find out just that.

One of the researchers in question, Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University and author of iGen, told The New Economy: “This has become a public health issue… Our recent study found that teens who use electronic devices five or more hours a day are 71 percent more likely to have at least one risk factor for suicide than those who use devices less than an hour a day.”

The shareholders’ open letter urged Apple to do more to protect developing minds from the harmful effects of overusing its products

Despite the sobering statistics, the alarms raised will not severely weaken Apple’s sales figures, as they do not commit the cardinal tech sin of a hardware fault. But the letter could engender concrete changes within the company; after all, investors are hoping to avoid the type of share price fluctuations that occur when consumers lose confidence.

The suggested steps outlined in the letter – which include introducing a committee of experts, assisting research and producing annual progress reports on tackling the issue – are relatively easy to implement. “If Apple could integrate parental controls into its iOS (say, restricting certain apps, shutting the phone down at night and limiting total use), iPhones would be safer for kids, and parents might be more willing to buy them for their children,” Twenge explained.

A red letter year
Ian Forrest, an investment research analyst at the Share Centre, warned: “[It’s] too early to say whether this is a moment of significant change for the tech industry… it depends on whether Apple and others in the sector take action, whether consumers alter their behaviour in a significant way, and whether the authorities try to impose new rules.”

While the warnings of industry players like Parker achieve as much in the long term as New Year’s resolutions, the shareholders’ data driven and commercially-speared approach stands a far greater chance of being taken on board at company level.

Laith Khalaf, a senior analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, believes limiting the amount of time children spend looking at a screen will impact social media providers more than hardware companies like Apple: “The tech industry is dealing with a number of big issues right now, such as cybersecurity, offensive content and taxation, so this friendly nudge from within the shareholder base isn’t likely to upset the ‘Applecart’.”

Decisive action could, in fact, increase revenue for Apple – something shareholders are acutely aware of. Given the growing public concern, the introduction of child safety features stamped with the approval of bona fide research could increase sales, as parents will be motivated to keep buying gadgets, but with less guilt.