By Catherine L’Ecuyer, article published in El País on January 10, 2018
Concerned by the harmful effects of its products on children and youth, they see business opportunities in a partnership between Apple and parents
Two important shareholders of Apple, Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS)—with two billion dollars invested in the company—have just sent a formal letter to the technological giant’s executive board, in which they shared their concerns regarding the “unintentional negative consequences” that its products can have on the developing brain of its youngest users. The letter presents a sampling of studies, which the shareholders describe as a “growing body of evidence,” which associates the consumption of technology with serious problems, including inattention, a lack of concentration on educational tasks, an increase in social and emotional challenges (in students that use personal devices in class), addiction, suicide, depression, decreased empathy, etc.
The shareholders argue that “it would defy common sense to argue that this level of usage, by children whose brains are still developing, is not having at least some impact.” And they recognize that it is no secret that social media and the applications for which iPhones “are a primary gateway” for the consumer are designed to be as addictive and time-consuming as possible.
So what are Apple’s shareholders proposing?
They say that parents should ensure “the developmentally optimal amount and type of access, particularly given the educational benefits mobile devices can offer.” They do not specify ages or what these “educational benefits” are, nor do they say what studies they are basing themselves on. Meanwhile, the Canadian Paediatric Association, in its 2017 statement, recommends completely avoiding the use of technology before the age of two, and reducing its use to a minimum for older children. It concludes that “there is no evidence to support introducing technology at an early age.”
It seems that Apple’s shareholders have adopted a strategy that will be kinder on their future business. In fact, they state that “it is both unrealistic and a poor long-term business strategy to ask parents to fight this battle alone,” that Apple has a responsibility to “offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using [its] products in an optimal manner,” and urges Apple’s executives to see in it an opportunity for a new business model: “Imagine the goodwill Apple can generate with parents by partnering with them in this effort and with the next generation of customers by offering their parents more options to protect their health and well-being.”
The shareholders propose a partnership between Apple and researchers, encouraging the company to supply parents with information and educational guidelines so that they can make more informed decisions. They suggest the release of more Apple products for minors, like smartphones for children or parental controls.
Now that usage statistics and evidence on the harmful effects of technology on minors have become frightening, it seems to be that the shareholders are making an effort to make the whole world understand that there is a before and after to this letter: Apple will change, and from now on will be the best friend of parents, who it will help to rescue the lost attentional skills of their children because Apple’s shareholders have realized that competing with an iPhone was a losing battle for parents. And if these shareholders can make this new business opportunity look like an act of charity, then it will have every appearance of a win-win situation.
Reading this letter, one cannot help but notice the carefully selected language, likely reviewed by an army of lawyers, of the shareholders of a company that could see itself implicated in a scandal akin to the one that involved the heads of tobacco companies—and harmed their shareholders—over the last few decades. Tobacco companies that, knowing their products were harmful, continued to sell them and turn a blind eye to the evidence. The two shareholders speak of an opportunity for assuming social responsibility, using language that allows them to evade any legal responsibility. They specify that attending to this issue “poses no threat to Apple, given that this is a software (not hardware) issue,” and considering that “Apple’s business model is not predicated on excessive use of [its] products.” They also say that “the research is not definitive,” point to “unintentional negative consequences,” and speak of “the potential long-term consequences of new technologies” that “need to be factored in at the outset.” But can one really say that nothing was known about the “potential consequences” of these devices for children when they were first released? Why were they not “factored in at the outset” to begin with?
In 2006, an editorial of the journal of the American Medical Association entitled “Media as a Public Health Issue,” signed by the chief expert on the effect of screens, Dimitri Christakis, asked: “Why is it that something that is widely recognized as being so influential and potentially dangerous has resulted in so little effective action? To be sure, there has been some lack of political will to take on the enormously powerful and influential entertainment industry. […M]edia need to be recognized as a major public health issue.”
In 2010, Aric Sigman, a psychologist and neurophysiologist, headed a presentation made to the European Parliament on the consequences of technology use and concluded that “there is nothing to be lost by children watching less screen media but potentially a great deal to be lost by allowing children to continue to watch as much as they do. By ignoring the growing body of evidence linking screen time with child health we may ultimately be responsible for the greatest health scandal of our time.”
A few years later, Manfred Spitzer, a psychiatrist specializing in the effect of technology and the author of the German bestseller Digitale Demenz (“Digital Dimentia”) said: “In view of all the negative repercussions of digital media on the mind and body of young people, repercussions that have been demonstrated many times by science, we might ask ourselves why no one was protesting anything or why they did not at least become indignant or irritated.”
So, why does nothing ever happen?
Sigman suggested an interpretation for this to the European Parliament: “both doctors and politicians want to be liked by the public. Telling parents that screen media might damage the health of their children places them in the position of being the bearer of bad news.” And he added that “it is unnecessary and counterproductive to form a partnership with media industries as a way of reducing children’s use of their services. There is a powerful and obvious conflict of interest.” Sigman added that the majority of research on new technologies is carried out by experts in media studies—who do not necessarily consider the educational or health impact of screens on children. “Research funds and conferences are often supported by the enormous corporate spending of large technology industries,” he says, which places them all squarely in a conflict of interest.
After decades of research on the effect of screens, the warnings of experts that recommend delaying their use still go unheeded. To ask children who do not yet have the capacity for self-inhibition to exercise self-control in the use of something that is designed to be addictive does not only make parents into police officers, but is a source of frustration for everyone, because it is an impossible task. It is like asking a child to drink out of a fire hydrant without getting wet. By contrast, the foundations sponsored by technology companies continue to prosper as the companies seek a clientele disposed to buy the dogma that “technology is neutral, and it all depends on the way we use it,” that “it’s the future, and we can’t miss the boat on it,” or that “it’s impossible to leave technology out of the classroom,” and that “each new technology is fundamentally distinct from previous ones.” The fact is that quality investigation on the effect of technology is costly and very slow on one hand; on the other hand, technological obsolescence occurs at such a rate that evidence will always lag behind technological innovations.
We will have to wait and see the second installment of what began today, with Apple investing millions of dollars sponsoring research on its products, educating parents on what these studies say, giving them guidelines for teaching their young children how to use technology “responsibly,” and expanding the range of their products, with a focus on children and teenagers. We will have to wait and see the increase in the number of foundations (sponsored by new technologies), experts, and speakers who specialize in the business of helping parents find the utopian balance between maximizing their children’s use of technology and paying the human toll that consumption of it entails, in order to enjoy the handful of undemonstrated educational benefits that it offers. Perhaps we will have to wait another ten years before we recognize, if we have sufficient sensitivity, that this path leads to the trap that MacLuhan warned us of: “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.”
Article inspired in Educar en la realidad (7ª edición), from the same author.
NB. On June 4th, the shareholders sent another letter to Apple. Link
(Co-translation Andrew Sheedy)