Two major Apple shareholders push for study of iPhone addiction in children

Luke Kawa, Bloomberg:

In a letter to the smartphone maker dated Jan. 6, activist investor Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System urged Apple to create ways for parents to restrict children’s access to their mobile phones. They also want the company to study the effects of heavy usage on mental health.

“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 from the investors, who combined own about $2 billion in Apple shares. The “growing societal unease” is “at some point is likely to impact even Apple.”

“Addressing this issue now will enhance long-term value for all shareholders,” the letter said.

Instinctively, it seems clear to me that heavy smartphone usage does have an impact on your mental health. It changes the social equation, moving communication from one-on-one direct contact to abbreviated, interrupting bursts. It also brings in a steady stream of sensationalized news snippets, exposing you to some information that is false.

This is an issue for children and an issue for everyone.

Is this Apple’s issue to fix?

  • I want misuse of the word “addiction” for anything but habituating chemicals, made at least a misdemeanor, possibly a felony with mandatory sentencing and electrical behavioral modification.

    We have no good word for “things that are fun, so you keep playing with them instead of doing things that are not-fun”, but that’s what phones are.

    The same things were said about TV and those of us in the MTV Generation. And about arcades, pinball machines, radio, comic books, even novels! Old boring people universally hate whatever fun thing people like today. Screw them.

    • Kip Beatty

      The entire gambling addiction community would like a moment to educate you on addiction. Addiction reaches far beyond chemicals. Do a little research before issuing blanket statements on issues you clearly know little about.

      • JimCracky

        And, yet, I can’t imagine that there is some chemical mechanism lurking behind most addictions.

        • Kip Beatty

          In terms of brain chemistry, absolutely. Addiction studies have shown that when it comes to addiction, be it opioids, nicotine, gambling, food, sex, etc., they all have a very similar effect in rewiring and over-rewarding very similar parts of the brain. Your own body chemistry works against you, it’s not wired properly in addicts.

          However, the idea that a person can only become addicted to a chemical/substance that’s introduced into the body like alcohol or drugs is ludicrous. We’ve long since leaned that’s far from true. When you can’t stop playing a video game to the point you lose your job, your home, your marriage and your health, I think it’s safe to say it’s not a simple discipline or “too much fun” problem.

        • Mo

          Turns out you’re half right.

      • They’re exactly who I mean; people do not have gambling addictions, they have poor decision-making abilities and want to blame someone else.

        Don’t make statements about how much I know or have researched, just because I disagree with professional victims.

    • Mo

      “This doesn’t affect me, therefore it doesn’t exist.”

    • Nick West

      A fine plan, but I’d start by not conflating Habituation and Addiction. Because your first paragraph breaks the law you’d like enacted.

      You’ve solved the problem yourself, just call anything that qualifies “Phones.”

      As another who was part of the MTV generation, I didn’t like any of that stuff (including MTV) except for novels, I was old and boring before my time.

  • Dana Pellerin

    I can’t imagine what Apple could do about this. It’s a parent’s job to make sure their kids are raised properly. I know many parents who limit their kids screen time.

    • Kip Beatty

      You can’t imagine what they could do? How about building in a set of parental controls that allow parents to set daily, weekly, and weekend time limits for usage either for the device or by app type?

      Controls like this were available in the XBox 360 in 2005, yet there is nothing of the kind to be found in iOS.

      • lkalliance

        Was thinking about this this morning. I’d like some system like what is in macOS (or used to be at least, I haven’t looked at Parental Controls for a while): set a schedule within which there is full access and outside of which there isn’t. Overlay a time limit per day within which there is full access but beyond which there isn’t. Then designate what apps can be used when you don’t have full access. Perhaps no third-party apps, and whitelists for Safari, Phone and Messages.

    • GlennC777

      That’s extremely naive. We’ve limited our kids’ screen time as well; but it’s swimming uphill against a strong current, and there are no simple answers when their own cultural, social lives take place largely online. This is a cultural problem as well as a technical one and a parental one. And, it’s not just kids – parents themselves are addicted to their devices. The whole issue of how to benefit from these devices while avoiding their various dark sides is a serious challenge for society on many levels.

      • Dana Pellerin

        I never said they shouldn’t try. I’m sure some smart people are already working on solutions. But software can’t fix everything. Ultimately, like everything else, this is going to come down to people making the right choices for themselves and their kids.

        • Brandon

          But this isn’t about the “ultimately” position, that completely misses the point. This is about having good Parental Controls in a device that is perfectly capable of having them.

          This is OS level control, so only Apple can implement it, so this letter is calling on Apple to get it done.

        • GlennC777

          Fair enough. I just object to the idea that raising kids “is a parent’s job,” implying that good parenting is the only, or even the primary, variable in any aspect of growing up; while also subtly abdicating cultural responsibility for the fact that all parents are imperfect and many will inevitably be downright poor, such that non-parental influences will be even more primary in their success or lack of as eventual adults.

        • At the moment, the software fixes nothing.

  • DanielSw

    This is decidedly NOT an issue for organizations—be it corporate, educational, law enforcement, governmental—to attempt to address. This is a personal (albeit widespread) issue. As far as children are concerned, it MAY be a situation of bad parenting, but for others, it’s simply the good ol’ “C-word”, CHOICES.

    • Mo

      You’re wrong. It’s more about proper education. Parents can’t make better choices if they have no awareness or experience of them. Bad parenting is done by undereducated people.

      • Brandon


    • GlennC777

      Parents and their kids don’t exist in a vacuum un-touched by outside society. Whatever choice even a perfect parent makes is going to cause harm of one kind or another, and no parent is perfect, nor does any parent have access to all the information needed even if they were otherwise perfect.

      Across the continuum of parental quality, more information, better information, cooperation from educational institutions, from the tech companies themselves, and from other parents will all have an effect on their kids eventual ability to use technology wisely.

  • Kip Beatty

    No doubt there will be a few “do your jobs parents” posts in here. When things like this come up, people come crawling out of the woodwork to tell everyone to just be better parents. Get lost.

    This is absolutely an issue for companies like Apple to help address. I do not want Apple to become a parent. I would very much like Apple to include a simple set of tools within iOS to give my wife and I more control over our kid’s access. No parent can watch their child 24/7. Asking companies like Apple to include simple features, like timers (Microsoft had this in the XBox 360 12 years ago, Apple can handle it if they’d bother) isn’t asking too much.

    • lkalliance

      Totally agree. A factor in all of this is that at the moment, smartphones and tablets are generally “all or nothing.” If you give a child access to an app, there is no granularity about that access. And I feel that SOME access is healthy and desirable, where ALWAYS access isn’t.

      One can argue that parents can already enforce those limits, but it would be a great help for iOS to have some parental tools like those that exist in macOS.

      Is it Apple’s issue to solve? No, but nor is Atrial Fibrillation. But they are in a position to provide tools that can be a great help to those who do own these issues.

      • Sigivald

        Apple can’t make any app developer provide internal-app granularity, though, and honestly I don’t see a lot of utility on that one.

        (Above suggestions about “use limits” are something Apple can do and probably should.

        Though equally if they do we’ll see people complaining that “mom and dad limited access to the phone and then the kid couldn’t use some messenger app to contact them and it’s a horrortragedy!”.

        Doesn’t mean Apple shouldn’t implement anything, but we must expect people to rail no matter what, because that’s what they do.)

        • Scarletbee

          There must be an way to have some kind of emergency-call override on usage limits that doesn’t provide a loophole for distraction, e.g. you lose access to all apps but can still perform strictly limited actions like calling a nominated set of numbers (e.g. family, emergency contact if family’s the problem) and emergency numbers, or sending a distress signal etc.

    • Herding_sheep

      Yea. While I hate to throw fault at Apple for creating devices that kids LOVE, I do think they could throw parents a little bone by adding the simple features you mentioned.

      Then it really is up to the parent. Its up to the parent to research what parental controls a device has, and how to properly utilize them.

      Competitors are really running circles around iOS in this area.

      • Kip Beatty

        Absolutely. The point isn’t to absolve parents of any responsibility, the goal is for all parties to work together for the benefit of children.

        Giving parents tools so that a child can regularly use an iPad for school, for example, while still limiting the amount of time they spend on YouTube or gaming, would be very helpful to parents. No question, once the tools are in place, it’s 100% incumbent upon the parents to learn, utilize, and monitor them.

        That seems sensible to me, yet in every article about this you’ll find commenters, all thinking they’re original thinkers no doubt, posting “or parents can just do their job.”

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    • Brandon

      I agree entirely. Parental Controls in iOS are a joke, awkward, clunky, buried, difficult to use effectively. All the things an Apple product should not be.

      This goes beyond timers. For example, I want my son to be able to use the phone if he needs/wants to, but I want to restrict which numbers he can call (kill the keypad dialer). Same for email, texts and FaceTime.

      Allow simple approval of actions without having to get into settings to disable restrictions. Basically, an administrator access, without all the hoops to get there.

      On the parenting front, ultimately, it is always the parent’s responsibility. However, parents should have the educations to make good decisions and the tools to implement them without constant supervision (I set the rules, it enforces them).

    • Brad Fortin

      Apple’s has parental controls since iPhone OS 2 back in 2008, and Guided Access since iOS 6 back in 2012. It’s not like they’ve been sitting back twiddling their thumbs.

      • Kip Beatty

        Guided access is not a parental control, nor, exactly, are restrictions. They’ve been adopted as such since Apple hasn’t created a proper toolset. They have, in this area, mostly twiddled their thumbs.

        How about instead of blocking all apps that show any kind of nudity, for example, so no one can see them, they actually give parents an in depth set of controls (content, timers, etc.) and allow adults to make adults choices?

        • Meaux

          A good example of robust Parental Controls is something like Circle. Of course, the problem with Circle is what happens if the kid is sharp enough to turn off wifi? Also, a way to send parents surfing/content information.

      • lkalliance

        Since you’re citing parental controls from almost ten years ago, it actually does sound like they’ve been twiddling their thumbs.

        • Brad Fortin

          You say that as if they haven’t touched the feature since its introduction despite making many improvements over the years.

      • Herding_sheep

        I’m a huge fan of Apple that defends them where I feel they’re justified, and criticizes them when I feel they’re not. My comment history should indicate that.

        However, this is the one area where you simply can’t defend them. iOS is sorely lacking SOPHISTICATED parental controls that almost every other competitor has implemented.

        Apple is known for making well-thought, sophisticated software. “Restrictions” and “Guided Access” are so far from sophisticated when compared to their competitors, that its almost embarrassing.

        I want Apple to make substantial improvements here, if anything just to get to feature parity of their competitors. Even the Nintendo Switch has more sophisticated parental controls, set through an iOS app. I Nintendo can accomplish this with a simple app, there’s no excuse for Apple to not do the same thing at an OS level.

  • Sigivald

    “urged Apple to create ways for parents to restrict children’s access to their mobile phones”

    … like, I dunno, taking it away from them?

    Or use the existing parental controls features?

    • Sigivald

      (Ref above, I don’t think Apple has nothing to improve here.

      But I do think activists pushing for attention deserve snarky replies, every time when they pick wording like that.)

      • Brandon

        Activists asking Apple for better Parental Controls, yeah, what terrible people, we should chastise them.

      • Meaux

        Odd to call them activists when they own $2B worth of shares. More accurate would be to call them minority owners as they have significant skin in the game.

    • Kip Beatty

      There are no “parental controls” in iOS. There are “restrictions”, which I, and most parents I know, use. There is also a guided access feature designed for those with disabilities that has been coopted by parents to keep young ones within a specific app.

      However, there are zero controls regarding usage time either by day/week or by app type nor is there anyway to set a user type like child. This is basic stuff that’s been available in other platforms for many years. No one is asking Apple to reinvent the wheel here, just do the bare minimum to assist parents.

      “Take it away from them…” Good job, you can parrot everyone else. Creative thinker you are.

  • Brad Fortin
    urged Apple to create ways for parents to restrict children’s access to their mobile phones.

    Like the parental controls (“Restrictions”) Apple’s had since iPhone OS 2? or like the Guided Access Apple’s had since iOS 6?

    • Brandon

      Yes, just not so poorly executed.

  • rick gregory

    “…urged Apple to create ways for parents to restrict children’s access to their mobile phones. “

    You mean like taking the phones away and otherwise being an actual parent?

    • Brandon

      Read the actual letter.

      This letter is 100% about implementing better Parental Controls. Case studies are used evidence of why it is important and why it would be beneficials (both to parents and Apple) to implement better controls.

      Nowhere does it imply that Apple is responsible for being the parent. In fact, it fully endorses the fact that parenting is up to the parent. It is just asking for better tools.

    • lkalliance

      I think the “actual parent” remark is narrow-minded. I too would like additional tools to assist in the effort. There is utility and there are social aspects and learning opportunities that come with the use of the technology; some method of allowing those benefits and limiting them would be welcome and useful.

      I agree with your first two post-scripts. The last feels a little straw-manny.

  • Person McPersonson

    This country seems to be ok with children getting shot and killed while the NRA receives no backlash, but yet Apple gets taken to task because kids are using phones too much?

    How odd.