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Investors Urge Apple to Address Childhood Smartphone Addiction


Two groups that control $2 billion worth of Apple stock are urging the company to weigh in on the scientific tug-of-war that surrounds the role of smartphones in mental health.

(Photo courtesy of Fotolia author patrick. Photo has been cropped.)

There’s something of a scientific tug-of-war that surrounds the role of smartphones in mental health. This week, a pair of major investors in Apple asked the company to explore the issue.

On 1 hand, it is often theorized that they can be a tremendous tool for good: outputs on social media enable extensive and specific mental health research; numerous smartphone apps have been developed and tested to improve mental health; and they can make counseling and psychiatrists far more accessible through telehealth interventions.

On the other, there is ample concern that the devices can become too imbued in the lives of young people, causing dependency and mental health issues. In September, a well-read feature in The Atlantic questioned whether smartphones had “destroyed a generation.”

In an open letter, representatives from JANA Partners and California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CALSTRS) urge Apple to assess whether youth become “addicted” to their technology. They also suggest ways the company could try to mitigate the phenomenon.

“It is a cliché to point out the ubiquity of Apple’s devices among children and teenagers, as well as the attendant growth in social media use by this group,” they write in their letter to Apple’s Board of Directors. “What is less well known is that there is a growing body of evidence that, for at least some of the most frequent young users, this may be having unintentional negative consequences.”

Collectively, JANA and CALSTRS control about $2 billion worth of Apple shares. Their recommendations are based on an extensive review of existing research on the mental health implications of smartphone addiction in children and teenagers. The work was conducted with help from Michael Rich, MD, who is the founding director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, and author and psychology professor Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University.

The letter cites a handful of recent studies, including an American Psychological Association survey in which 58% of parents said that they worry about the influence of social media on their child’s health and that they feel their child is “attached” to their phone. The investors also note Twenge’s own work, which has shown that heavy use of smartphones and social media among 8th graders can lead to inadequate sleep and risk factors for depression.

Twenge also penned the aforementioned feature for The Atlantic. “I asked my undergraduate students at San Diego State University what they do with their phone while they sleep,” she wrote. “Their answers were a profile in obsession.”

In their letter, JANA and CALSTRS list a series of what they call “clear initial steps that Apple can follow” to tackle the issue. Assembling an expert committee (they recommend the inclusion of experts they consulted), funding research into the problem, and creating educational protocols to help parents make “more informed decisions” are all among the suggestions.

The letter also urges Apple to explore the creation of new tools to monitor or limit the use of its technology among young people by allowing parents to give their children age-appropriate setup options. The 2 groups also want the company to install a high-level executive whose job it is to monitor the situation “just as Apple does for environmental and supply chain issues.”

Although 1 group represents California educators “who care deeply about the health and welfare of the children in their classrooms,” the pair say their letter should be interpreted as any shareholder recommendation would.

“We believe the long-term health of its youngest customers and the health of society, our economy, and the Company itself, are inextricably linked,” they write, saying that the change they advocate for “will enhance and protect value.”

Apple has, in different ways, increasingly begun to position its products to be seen as health devices. Apple Watch’s heartrate monitoring capabilities, for example, have shifted from basic fitness information to federally-regulated interventions, and the FDA has approved a smartphone app to help patients with substance abuse disorder.

Recently, researchers from Mayo Clinic attempted to use iPhones and Apple Watches as a means of studying depression in adults, emphasizing that the devices could be useful for gathering data about the condition in the future. Whether the devices play a role in developing the condition in the first place, however, will need to be explored further.

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