Smartphone addiction puts tech groups on defensive

Children’s increasing dependence on smartphones have raised a range of ethical concerns © Alamy

At the annual Consumer Electronics Show, there were few problems to which the technology industry’s solution was not “more technology”.

So as the world’s gadget makers this week descended on Las Vegas for their biggest annual show, the timing could not have been worse for two Apple shareholders who together own about $2bn of the iPhone maker’s stock to launch an activist campaign over technology addiction and children’s health

Worse still, the investors turned a social issue that had been steadily gaining momentum over the past year into a threat to share prices, arguing that the “long-term health” of young people and society are “inextricably linked” to the “long-term viability” of companies such as Apple.

Having the topic thrust back into the headlines just as CES got under way blindsided the industry. Unlike artificial intelligence, robots or virtual reality, digital addiction was hardly a hot topic on the show floor this week.

Many tech executives have been privately grappling with the problem, with a growing number of Silicon Valley parents limiting smartphone usage by their children

Yet the perceived impact on the bottom line of encouraging customers to use their products less makes it difficult for tech companies, software developers or telecoms operators to discuss the problem. 

“Folks at the device manufacturers have been aware of it for some time,” says Fred Bould, founder of Bould Design, a studio that has worked with tech companies including Nest, GoPro and Roku. “The onus is on the parents but it would be great if social media companies and device manufacturers had some controls that are easy to use, accessible and transparent. I don’t think that exists right now.” 

In an open letter to Apple published on Sunday, Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System pointed to the “growing body of evidence” that smartphone and social media usage among younger users “may be having unintentional negative consequences”. These could range from distraction at school and sleep deprivation to depression and diminished empathy. 

The investors cited research suggesting that half of American teenagers report feeling “addicted” to their phones. 

“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,” the investors wrote, “and no company can outsource that responsibility to an app designer, or more accurately to hundreds of app designers, none of whom have critical mass.”

Even some of the individuals who helped to create the iPhone agree on the looming crisis and say it is adults, not just children, who are at risk. 

“Device addiction is real,” Tony Fadell, a former Apple executive who helped design the device and founded Nest, said in a flurry of tweets on the matter this week. 

“Apple Watches, Google Phones, Facebook, Twitter — they’ve gotten so good at getting us to go for another click, another dopamine hit. They now have a responsibility & need to start helping us track & manage our digital addictions,” Mr Fadell said. “We will have regulations some year only if the tech companies don’t step up.”

Apple has responded by insisting it has “always looked out for kids” and already offers “intuitive parental controls built right into the operating system”. 

But while saying that its employees “think deeply about how our products are used”, Apple conceded that it could do more. “We have new features and enhancements planned for the future, to add functionality and make these tools even more robust,” it said this week. 

In interviews during CES, tech executives defended the social impact of their products.

“I believe that the transformation created by the smartphone on society is probably as significant as what we have seen with the automobile and electricity,” said Cristiano Amon, president of Qualcomm, whose chips lie at the heart of many mobile devices. While the smartphone’s benefits outweigh the downsides, he added, “like anything, the downsides need to be understood [and] need to be addressed”.

Yang Yuanqing, chief executive of Chinese electronics group Lenovo, took a similar line. “Definitely smartphones make our lives easier and more convenient,” he said. “If you spend too much time on your smartphone, it’s not good — it probably will impact your health as well.”

Motorola, the mobile device maker that is owned by Lenovo, is one of the few smartphone makers to openly address the issue. It has an online quiz to help customers assess their “phone-life balance”, which asks: “Do you own your phone or does your phone own you?”

It also recommends more technology to help manage the problem — apps such as Offtime, AntiSocial and Quality Time that help parents limit their children’s smartphone usage or block distracting notifications. 

But Simon Segars, chief executive of mobile chip designer Arm Holdings, said the “onus is on people”, not technology, to ensure children use smartphones responsibly. 

“It is sometimes worrying to wander around and see some very small child staring at a phone but this is about parenting,” he said. “Before the days of phones, it would have been something else.”

This post originally appeared on Financial Times

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