Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw is a writer and development professional who has worked on emergencies on several continents, most recently as a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Some of Apple’s biggest investors dropped a bombshell on the tech giant earlier this week, demanding that the company does more to fight iPhone addiction amongst kids.
The demand from investors California State Teachers’ Retirement System and Jana Partners – two major funds that own about $2 billion in Apple stock between them – cited a growing body of research showing that over-immersion in smartphones, usually meaning more than a couple of hours of screen-time-per-day, can lead to depression, lack of sleep, difficulty concentrating and even suicide.
Two years ago in my first TEDx talk, “Why Life is All About REAL Connections,” I drew a gasp from the audience with some pretty scary research findings on children who utilize tablets at an early age. Two-years-olds using tablets are having problems concentrating, showing empathy and – even difficulty reading facial expressions. Depression and obesity are also being attributed to immersion in screens. The situation is especially acute in low-income families, where more than half of babies aged two are using smartphones and tablets.
I don’t think the problems end there. Imagine the long-term impact on eyesight, sleep and posture of children who start looking at screens at too early an age.
The average American teenager got their first smartphone before entering their teens, at roughly 10-years-old. They spend about five hours a day on their phones – not including talking and texting – while the healthy maximum is said to be one to two.
But the impact of technology on today’s children is no longer a First World problem.
In its recent annual flagship publication the State of the World’s Children, UNICEF took the unprecedented step of dedicating its entire report to the impact of digital technology on children worldwide. “From photos posted online to medical records stored in the cloud, many children have a digital footprint before they can even walk or talk,” says the report.
Could it be that in the future, parents remember the time their toddler took their own selfie, rather than uttering their first word?
It isn’t clear whether the Apple investors were influenced by the alarming findings in the UNICEF report. But they certainly aren’t the first in Silicon Valley to sound the alarm. In a mea culpa, Sean Parker, one of the earliest investors of Facebook, said he regrets the impact the social platform is having on society. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” he said.
I can imagine the dilemma parents face when it comes to policing their children’s use of technology. Be too strict and you may be denying them access to information, discovery and enjoyment. Who wants their kid to turn into a nerd who doesn’t know how to use Boomerang to create cool Instagram posts?
But as UNICEF points out, the proliferation of smartphones is fueling a “bedroom culture” where kids are using devices unsupervised in the isolation of their rooms.
The fight against smartphone addiction is clearly going to be a long-term, multi-stakeholder battle, involving parents, teachers, developers, software and hardware manufacturers. And it’s unfair and unrealistic to expect parents to battle this alone – especially considering that smartphones are being described as “digital heroine” for the youngest members of our society.
The demands by Apple shareholders are a good start. They include convening a panel of experts, partnering with experts for further research and offering parents new tools and options. If there are grown-up apps that allow you to remotely start your car, watch for potential house break-ins and pick-out a great Cabernet, why cant there be more functional apps to manage or monitor your kid’s device usage?
As the tech giants sort themselves out, parents need to take action now: I would go as far as suggesting no smartphone or tablets in the bedroom, and more face-to-face interaction. Devices shouldn’t be used as digital pacifiers for young babies.
Apple said that it is working on new features to help parents protect their children and has defended its hardware, saying that it is possible for parents to control the content that children see on these devices.
While the use of parental controls is a wise approach, as Dan Eden, a business ethics instructor at the San Diego State University points out: “There is no defeat device that is going to override the insistence of a teenager. Period.”
Great parental advice here from UNICEF: “Taking a ‘Goldilocks’ approach to children’s screen time – not too much, not too little – and focusing more on what children are doing online and less on how long they are online, can better protect them and help them make the most of their time online.”
Adults need to set an example by practicing digital etiquette – especially in front of their kids. Don’t rush through the front door at the end of a long work day glued to your smartphone as your kids wait for your undivided attention.
At the end of the day, given what we know now of the harmful effects of obsessive online use, what might be needed is the same type of heavy arsenal used to beat back the Marlboro Man: a massive public health campaign to identify the harmful effects, teach people about how to best utilize digital technology and provide easy access for countering addiction.