Sorry, parents, Apple can’t keep kids from getting addicted to phones: experts

TORONTO — Consumers shouldn’t count on Apple redesigning its phones and tablets to make them less addictive for kids, say experts, who caution that good parenting may be the only solution to keep children from staring too long at screens.

While two of Apple’s biggest shareholders are pushing for new features to help limit damaging screen time for children, tech observers say there’s no easy fix and the responsibility will remain with parents to do what’s best for their kids.

“I think the only area that control can come from is going to have to be direct parental limits,” says Aimee Morrison, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo who studies technology’s impact on culture.

The latest debate over how much tech companies can prevent addiction was spawned by an open letter sent by New York-based Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, which collectively own US$2 billion of Apple stock.

“Apple can play a defining role in signalling 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,” reads the letter.

“We believe addressing this issue now by offering parents more tools and choices could enhance Apple’s business and increase demand for its products.”

Apple quickly responded by saying it already has a number of parental controls built into its iPhones and iPads and “new features and enhancements (are) planned for the future.”

There’s still no consensus on whether kids can be truly addicted to screens, but there’s no question that “excessive use” of phones and tablets can affect physical and mental health, says MediaSmarts director of education Matthew Johnson.

He’d like to see Apple implement a tool that would set a “usage curfew” to limit a device’s capabilities in the evening when a child should be getting ready for bed. Controls should be more than a simple on-off switch, he adds, so parents can adjust access as they see fit.

But consumers can’t rely on technology companies to make devices that are risk-free and don’t require good parenting, Johnson says.

“It’s important that (parental control features) not be something that is seen as a complete solution, what’s really important is as our kids are getting older we gradually give them more and more responsibility,” he says.

“What would be very helpful is a (feature) where we’re not setting really strict limits as parents, we’re not directly supervising them but they don’t have total freedom either. We’re able to maybe put limits where we think they’re necessary, we’re able to give them reminders, and we might be able to set that curfew period.”

Even one of the iPhone’s early designers now has reservations about the device’s addictive qualities — for kids and adults. Tony Fadell, who left Apple and went on to co-design the Nest digital thermostat, tweeted that “device addiction is real” and “we need to know where the line is and when we’ve crossed over to addiction.”

He suggests “screen time rules, living in the moment, screen-free meals, relearning analog objects like books and writing and sketching, tech-free days for the family to be together” as possible strategies to combat screen addiction.

While some have questioned whether phones and tablets are any more alluring than television or video games were to kids in the earliest days of those technologies, Morrison argues portability is the distinctive factor.

“In the first golden age of television in the 1950s when homes were getting these sets in the living room — and they received three channels — parents could walk in the room and turn it off. With early video gaming systems as well the consoles were hooked up to the television in the main room,” she says.

“The thing with an iPhone or an iPad is it goes everywhere with us. You used to be able to rip your kid out from in front of the TV and say, ‘Come on, we’re going grocery shopping,’ but now they won’t even get in the car without saying, ‘Can I play with your phone?’

“I think it’s the scale of the use and the ubiquity and pervasiveness.”

Even if Apple doesn’t have a direct responsibility to parents, it’s not surprising that the company quickly committed to doing more, says Neil Bearse, director of marketing at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business.

Apple has long marketed itself as a company that believes in family values and that creates “safe” products parents can trust, says Bearse.

“(Former CEO) Steve Jobs went on the record essentially to say there will never be pornography in the App Store,” Bearse says.

“You could come at it with a cynical commercial lens of saying they want to continue the iPhone-user pipeline to be as young as they can get…. For a parent who’s debating, ‘Which phone should I give to my kids for Christmas this year,’ the family-friendly angle is definitely in line with those values.”

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