Childhood iPhone Addiction Risks Warrant Further Investigation By Apple: Shareholders

Two large Apple shareholders are calling for the tech giant to implement more extensive parental controls on iPhones and study the impact of heavy use of the smartphones may have on children’s mental health. 

On January 6, JANA Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (Calstrs) issued an open letter to Apple Inc., citing research focusing on child and teen use of smartphones and potentially harmful side effects they may have.

The letter, which indicates collectively the two organizations own $2 billion in Apple shares, cites the research of several experts who have focused on the effects of smartphones on adolescents.

Dr. Michael Rich, founding director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School Teaching Hospital, and associate professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, is cited in conjunction with Professor Jean M. Twenge, psychologist San Diego State University.

In a study conducted by Twenge, researchers indicate that teens who spend three hours on electronic devices are 35% more likely to have risk factors for suicide. Those that spent more than five hours were 71% more likely.

Teens that spend more than five hours are 51% more likely to get less than seven hours of sleep, instead of the recommended nine hours. Sleep deprivation is linked to weight gain and high blood pressure.

The letter urged Apple to focus on current research, study new research, and implement more focused parental controls, without relying on outside app developers to complete that task.

“There is a clear need for Apple to offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure young consumers are using products in an optimal manner,” the letter states.

The letter cited unintentional negative consequences smartphone use may have on children and teens. In a study conducted by the Center on Media and Child Health and the University of Alberta, 67% of more than 2,300 teachers surveyed indicated the number of students who are distracted by digital technology in the classroom is growing.

Furthermore, 75% say it affects a child’s ability to focus on educational tasks, as a result, decreasing their focus.

The letter also cited research which indicated 8th graders who are heavy users of social media have 27% higher risk of depression. Comparatively, adolescents who spend more than the average time spent playing sports, hanging out with friends, or doing homework have a lower risk. Depression as a teen increases a person’s risk of depression later in life.

The two groups called on Apple to “set an example,” considering their technology is ubiquitous among children and teens. As such, the groups believe Apple has an obligation for safe use of their products, especially to their youngest customers.

Youth Smartphone Use Increasing

The average American teen receives a smart phone at age 10 and spends about 4.5 hours a day on it, not including texting and talking, experts say. Nearly 80% of teens check their phones hourly and about half of adolescent users report feeling addicted to their phones.

The letter also pointed to a UCLA study which found that after five days at an outdoor device-free camp, children performed better on empathy tests.

The shareholders offered several suggestions for initial steps the tech giant could take to tackle the issue:

  • Convening an expert committee with child development specialist to study the relevant issues connected to adolescents and smartphone use.
  • Offering Apple resources to aid research efforts.
  • Enhancing mobile device software with better parental controls, which may help limit screen time, restrict use to certain hours, and reduce available social media sites, among other parental monitoring.
  • Offering education to parents concerning the changes.
  • Establishing a permanent executive position at Apple to monitor the issue and its progress.

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