Two activist investors are urging Apple to take steps to curb how addictive iPhones are to children.
Their motives aren't purely about what's best for little kids: If Apple doesn't figure out how to solve this problem, one of its competitors might.
“Apple can play a defining role in signaling to the industry that paying special attention to the health and development of the next generation is both good business and the right thing to do,” wrote billion-dollar investors Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, a pension fund, in a letter to Apple they also posted online.
“There is a developing consensus around the world including Silicon Valley that the potential long-term consequences of new technologies need to be factored in at the outset, and no company can outsource that responsibility,” they wrote.
The letter comes as society seems to be re-evaluating its relationship to the technology we have allowed to permeate every facet of our lives. There is a feeling that the devices and sites and programs that were supposed to connect us more closely to each other and to better inform are instead driving apart.
The unsettling allure of technological dependence has been a bugbear for parents and commentators for years. There's even a movement, Wait Until 8th, that has parents sign a pledge to not give their kids a smartphone until they're in 8th grade.
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In a recent piece for NBC News THINK, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington lamented how technology degrades the closeness between people in the same room and cited how heavy social media usage has been linked to higher rates of depression, especially in the young.
"Our ability to succeed in the technology-dominated workplace of the future depends, in no small measure, on our ability to — right now — take back control of our technology, and our lives," she wrote.
Connection, happiness, what could be more important for healthy childhood development?
But now even those involved in making or funding the technologies seem to be having second thoughts, especially when it comes to young, malleable, vulnerable minds.
These creators-turned-critics say the software is programmed to trigger rushes of dopamine in the brain that keep users coming back over and over again, with little consideration, beyond profit, of the long-term consequences of that behavior scaled across billions of users.
"God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains," Sean Parker, Facebook's founding president, told Axios.
Chamath Palihapitiya, vice-president for user growth at Facebook before he left the company in 2011 is likewise disavowing the very products and customer-retention techniques he used to spearhead.
"I can control my decision, which is that I don’t use that s****. I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use that s****," he told The Guardian.
And the late Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple, himself recognized the threat to the children of the world he himself had unleashed.
In a 2010 interview, asked whether his kids loved the iPad, Jobs famously said, "We don’t allow the iPad in the home. We think it’s too dangerous for them."
The Apple investors say content on the phones needs to be more geared around the youth mind. And they're calling for Apple to do more research, and develop tools that will allow parents to more easily set time and usage limits -- before their rivals do or regulators force their hand.
"In the case of Apple, we believe the long-term health of its youngest customers and the health of society, our economy, and the Company itself, are inextricably linked, and thus the only difference between the changes we are advocating at Apple now and the type of change shareholders are better known for advocating is the time period over which they will enhance and protect value," they wrote.
Apple has not publicly commented on the letter.