Children on digital overload

Big investors in Apple have flagged the effects of excessive screen time on kids. Fresh solutions may lie in paying better attention to each child’s capabilities.

AP Photo
A girl plays with a mobile phone while riding in a New York subway. Two major Apple investors have urged the iPhone maker to take action to curb growing smartphone use among children, highlighting growing concern about the effects of gadgets and social media on youngsters.

If you’re reading this on a smartphone or tablet, especially an iPhone or iPad, we’ll try to keep it short.

You see, two of the biggest investors in Apple sent a letter to the tech giant last week asking it to look at the negative effects of its products on users, principally excessive screen time among children and teens.

Such public concerns shared by investors about the social consequences of technology on youths may be a first for Silicon Valley. The shareholders, a hedge fund and a teachers’ benefits organization, wrote that it is 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.”

The letter asks Apple to have a more sensitive approach to children and to provide better tools to help parents guide their kids. “We believe the long-term health of its youngest customers and the health of society, our economy and the company itself are inextricably linked,” the investors stated. (Apple responded by saying it is committed to “exceeding our customers’ expectations, especially when it comes to protecting kids.”)

The letter echoes a rising chorus around the world about the impact of the digital industry on young people – even though many tech firms such as Facebook already have various safeguards in place.

Last week, the World Health Organization listed “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition, in which excessive video gaming is seen as taking “precedence over other life interests.” South Korea bans access for children under 16 to online games between midnight and 6 a.m. France is weighing a measure to require children under 16 to obtain their parents’ approval to open an account on social media sites. It already plans to ban any use of mobile phones by students in primary and middle schools.

And last November, Britain’s health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, called on social media and technology companies “to show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health among teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Such calls for reform are not a Luddite rejection of technology but fundamentally an embrace of the innocence of children and a desire to enhance their capacity to self-regulate and to guard their consciousness.

They also point to the need for a closer look at how children really use their devices.

A recent study from the University of Oxford found that children primarily use such technology to enhance their daily activities, such as homework. “People think that children are addicted to technology and in front of these screens 24/7, to the exclusion of other activities – and we now know that is not the case,” says researcher Killian Mullan. 

In addition, adults need to react carefully to their concerns. A study out of the University of Chicago found that teens who voluntarily take breaks from social media fare better in their friendships than teens whose devices are taken away from them.

The solutions may lie less in Silicon Valley and more in society’s attention to the inherent abilities of children.

“We should promote children’s critical spirit and their ability to analyze and distance themselves from over-using their phones,” Rachel Delacour, co-president of industry body France Digital, tells the Financial Times.

Actually, right now may be a good time to take a break from your screen ... and think on these things.

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