Like most contentious issues in the U.S. where health and safety are concerned, historically two broad approaches have been used to deal with the effects of products that may be harmful to adults and children.
The dominant approach is to educate the public to the possible dangers (e.g., tainted food, harmful drugs, contaminated water, drunk drivers). In effect, put it on the individual consumer to read and hear about the dangers and then avoid illness and death. When there is a huge outcry over the damage done by, say, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and reckless driving, for example, schools have been dragged into teaching safe and sane use of potentially dangerous products. Recall that drug, sex ,and driver education were (and are) staples in district curricula across the country in the 20th century. Educate individual adults and children at home and in school (also with public service ads) and they will be alert to what can hurt them.
The rash of in-school shootings in the past few years have yet to persuade the Congress to ban
purchase of assault weapons and other ways of restricting who buys guns. Gun-makers and the
National Rifle Association (NRA) have made massive political contributions to presidential and
congressional campaigns to block legislation banning certain weapons time and again. In the wake
of the Parkland High School (FLA) killings of students and teachers, Political groups have formed to
get the President and members of Congress to do something about Americans’ addiction to buy and
use handguns and assault weapons.
These examples of mobilizing political coalitions to make changes in improving safety and health concentrate on private and public organizations that influence our daily lives rather than focusing on altering the behavior of each and every individual affected. Of course, both strategies come into play; it is neither one or the other but historical examples show repeatedly that the dominant approach in a society where individualism reigns and choice is sacrosanct is to persuade individual Americans to change their behavior. Not large corporations or state and federal laws.
When it comes to addictions to new technologies and social media, the dominant approach remains–change individual behavior with campaigns to have tech-free weekends, urging parents to restrict children’s use of devices to an hour a day, and similar solutions (see here and here).
But in the past few months, the strategy of getting corporations that produce these devices and software to take responsibility for their actions and change what they do rather than focusing on the individual has emerged. Consider the action of two major investors in technology who own over two billion dollars of shares in Apple (Jana Partners and California State Teachers Retirement System) calling upon the Apple Board of Directors to help parents and children avoid addictive behavior in overusing the iPhone, iPad, and laptops.
we have reviewed the evidence and we believe there is a clear need for Apple to offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner. By doing so, we believe Apple would once again be playing a pioneering role, this time by setting an example about the obligations of technology companies to their youngest customers.
The investors go on in the letter to the Board of Directors to say the strategy of depending upon individual parents to do the heavy lifting of constraining use of devices is insufficient. Apple has responsibilities to both parents and children to reduce addictive behavior:
Some may argue that the research is not definitive, that other factors are also at work, and that in any case parents must take ultimate responsibility for their children. These statements are undoubtedly true, but they also miss the point. The average American teenager who uses a smart phone receives her first phone at age 10 and spends over 4.5 hours a day on it (excluding texting and talking). 78% of teens check their phones at least hourly and 50% report feeling “addicted” to their phones. 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 to ensure it is being used optimally. It is also no secret that social media sites and applications for which the iPhone and iPad are a primary gateway are usually designed to be as addictive and time-consuming as possible, as many of their original creators have publicly acknowledged. According to the APA survey cited above, 94% of parents have taken some action to manage their child’s technology use, but it is both unrealistic and a poor long-term business strategy to ask parents to fight this battle alone. Imagine the goodwill Apple can generate with parents by partnering with them in this effort and with the next generation of customers by offering their parents more options to protect their health and well-being.
The letter ends with what the two investors believe Apple can do:
This is a complex issue and we hope that this is the start of a constructive and well-informed dialogue, but we think there are clear initial steps that Apple can follow, including:
- Expert Committee: Convening a committee of experts including child development specialists (we would recommend Dr. Rich and Professor Twenge be included) to help study this issue and monitor ongoing developments in technology, including how such developments are integrated into the lives of children and teenagers.
- Research: Partnering with these and other experts and offering your vast information resources to assist additional research efforts.
- New Tools and Options: Based on the best available research, enhancing mobile device software so that parents (if they wish) can implement changes so that their child or teenager is not being handed the same phone as a 40-year old, just as most products are made safer for younger users. For example, the initial setup menu could be expanded so that, just as users choose a language and time zone, parents can enter the age of the user and be given 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, setting up parental monitoring, and many other options.
- Education: Explaining to parents why Apple is offering additional choices and the research that went into them, to help parents make more informed decisions.
- Reporting: Hiring or assigning a high-level executive to monitor this issue and issuing annual progress reports, just as Apple does for environmental and supply chain issues.
For investors to write such a letter asking one of the wealthiest corporations in the world to take responsibility for its product in influencing children’s behavior is unusual (and in my opinion, about time). But as New York Times reporter Natasha Singer says:
Yes, it would be terrific if Apple introduced new control options for parents. But if shareholders want to fault companies for manipulating or addicting users, they should also be taking a hard look at Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Netflix, and many more.
Turning the spotlight on organizational behavior and the behind-the-scenes structures within which all of us live is a welcome turnabout in a society where the dominant strategy is to get individuals to alter their behavior (see here, here, and here). Yet, as some argue the research driving the case for technology addiction in children and youth is closer to the colloquial use of the word than a medical diagnosis (see here). Thus, public persuasion as in pressuring corporations to do something about their products aligned to political action as in making cars safer (rather than the smoking tobacco campaign) may be more effective in achieving corporate accountability.