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January 11, 2018
by Tracey Block

When technology contributes to mental illness

January 11, 2018 02:10 by Tracey Block

Last weekend, Apple Inc. received a letter of concern from two of its high-powered billionaire investors about the addictive effects of Apple products on children. Just two years earlier in February 2016, the American Psychological Association (APA) published an article on the negative consequences resulting from parent addictions to Apple products. While last week’s letter, now circulating on traditional and social medias, currently holds the audience’s attention--clearly, the concerns are not new, nor is the need to address them. Moreover, the question of where the responsibility lies still remains unanswered.

In their open letter to the Board of Directors of Apple Inc., Barry Rosenstein, managing partner of JANA Partners LLC, and Anne Sheehan, Director of Corporate Governance for The California State Teachers' Retirement System (CALSTRS) clarified their relationship to the famous tech company as shareholders who collectively own “approximately $2 billion in value of shares of Apple Inc.”.

Rosenstein and Sheehan referred to studies and evidence from experts in children’s mental and physical health to bolster their call for Apple to “offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner”. Providing assistance to current Apple product users, i.e., to parents, will protect the children--Apple’s customers of tomorrow, they wrote.

In their letter, the investors acknowledged the obvious “ubiquity of Apple’s devices among children and teenagers” and the reciprocal development of social media that has resulted. The concern, and the reason for their open letter, they explained, is the less obvious but pervasive “body of evidence that, for at least some of the most frequent young users, this may be having unintentional negative consequences”.

Studies from the Center on Media and Child Health and the University of Alberta provide evidence of increased distracted behavior, greater emotional and social challenges, and reduced focus. The investors quoted statistics from analysis by Professor Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University and the author of the book iGen. “Twenge’s research shows that U.S. teenagers . . . who spend five hours or more [on electronic devices] are 71 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide than those who spend less than one hour,” they explained.

Twenge’s work also showed that teens who use smartphones and other tech devices for five or more hours each day were 51 percent more likely to deprive themselves of healthy hours of sleep. Reduced sleep, Rosenstein and Sheehan reminded Apple, has been linked to mental health issues, and problems with weight and high blood pressure.

Rosenstein and Sheehan also noted that studies at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health showed an increase in depression and anxiety in youth whose daily use of social media is high.

The Apple shareholders urged the company not to dismiss scientific work, but to add it to hard evidence that includes such statistics as 10 being the average age of a child receiving their first phone. As such, wrote Rosenstein and Sheehan, “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”.

In addition to suggesting Apple Inc. engage in research and form an expert committee on the subject, Rosenstein and Sheehan proposed that the company enhance the software of its mobile devices. Perhaps, they suggested, the setup menu for a new phone could be outfitted for the input of the user’s age. By doing this, they recommended Apple supply “age-appropriate setup options based on the best available research including limiting screen time, restricting use to certain hours, reducing the available number of social media sites, [and] setting up parental monitoring.”

In his article today for CNN.com, writer Jordan Valinsky said even a former Apple executive is voicing his concern on the addictive quality of Apple products on children and youth. Tony Fadell, co-creator of the Apple iPhone and iPod “tweeted that ‘device addiction’ is real,” Valinsky wrote. 

“We need to know where the line is and when we've crossed over to addiction,” Fadell said. "Our smartphone 'bottle' needs to tell us we've had enough."

Ironically, just two years ago, in her article for the APA, writer Amy Novotney examined the growing concern over parents’ addictions to smartphones and other tech devices—and how their addictions were negatively impacting the lives of their children.

Novotney quoted pediatrician Michael Rich, MD, MPH, founder and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children's Hospital. “The pervasiveness of smartphones seems to have ushered in a new era of distracted parenting,” he said. “I've seen so many parents plop their kids down at the playground and then sit on the bench with their phones.”

Psychologists and experts in child development worry that children are growing up in environments where they must compete with smartphones for parent attention. “Smartphone use may even be harming children's social development, with children seeing that their parents think that socializing with a screen as just as good as face-to-face interaction,” Novotney wrote.

Although Apple Inc.'s most recent website posting from the Apple Newsroom reported it is kicking off the new year after a "record-breaking holiday season", it did issue a brief statement in response to its investors' open letter of concern. "We think deeply about how our products are used and the impact they have on users and the people around them," Apple said in a statement. "We take this responsibility very seriously."

 


References 

Apple Inc., (January 4, 2018). Apple store kicks off 2018 with record-breaking holiday season. https://www.apple.com/newsroom/2018/01/app-store-kicks-off-2018-with-record-breaking-holiday-season/

Novotney, A., (February 2016). American Psychological Association. Smartphone=not-so-smart parenting. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/02/smartphone.aspx

Rosenstein, B., & Sheehan, A., (January 6, 2018). JANA Partners LLC. Open Letter From JANA Partners And CALSTRS To Apple Inc., https://thinkdifferentlyaboutkids.com

Valinsky, J., (January 9, 2018). CNN.com. Even the iPhone’s designer is worried about phone addiction. http://money.cnn.com/2018/01/09/technology/business/apple-iphone-addiction-tony-fadell/

 

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