Investors Urge Apple To Fight Smartphone Addiction With Tighter Parental Controls

The shareholders’ letter to the iPhone maker cites high rates of teen depression and suicide, linked to overuse of electronic devices.

By Michael MarksJanuary 12, 2018 11:03 am

In the U.S., nearly 45 percent of smartphone owners carry an Apple iPhone. This market dominance has brought increasing scrutiny to the company, even from some of its own shareholders. They’re complaining that the success of the iPhone may be coming at too great a cost to the health of the nation’s kids. Last weekend, some Apple investors sent a letter to the company, asking that they address what the investors call a new public health crisis – so-called smartphone addiction among kids.

Activist investors Jana Partners, and the California Teachers’ Retirement System, say that studies show links between overuse of social media and electronic devices with mental health risks, like depression, anxiety, and even risks for suicide.

Jean Twenge, professor of Psychology and author of the book “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood,” is among the authors of the letter to Apple. She says the rates of clinical-level depression and suicide among teens began to increase in 2010, right around the time smartphones became common among people in that age group.

“In a recent study, we found that teens who spent five or more hours a day on electronic devices were 71 percent more likely to have at least one risk factor for suicide than those who spent less than an hour a day,” Twenge says. Those risk factors include feeling depressed for two weeks, thinking about suicide, and planning or attempting suicide.

In singling out Apple, Twenge says the investors are arguing that in addition to achieving public health benefits, the company also could increase shareholder value by addressing the problem.

“Apple gets most of their profit when people buy the device, regardless of how much they use it,” she says. “And parents might be even more likely to buy Apple devices for their kids if they were easier to set up in a way that would be safer for kids – that would, say, limit the amount of hours per day the child could use the device…not allow certain apps to be installed. There’s all kinds of possibilities.”

Twenge says other smartphone operating systems allow for more granular control, and access restrictions. Many of those controls come through third-party apps you can buy or download from the Google Play store, in the case of Android phones.

“Apple hasn’t really kept up with other manufacturers in parental controls,” Twenge says. “To be fair, there are third-party apps that allow more parental would be ideal if Apple could integrate such controls into their operating system.”

Twenge says Apple made a brief statement indicating the company would add more parental control features in the future, and that they were open to discussing the issue.

To those who suggest the real solution lies with parents, not companies, Twenge says tech solutions are the best way to keep kids safe.

“Nobody wants to have a wrestling match with a teenager over a phone,” she says.


Written by Shelly Brisbin.