Two major Apple shareholders are calling on the company to do more to protect children from the potentially harmful side effects of excessive technology use.
In a letter delivered to Apple on Saturday, representatives from the California State Teachers’ Retirement System and the investment firm Jana Partners LLC urged the tech giant to address the “growing body of evidence” that suggests frequent digital-device use can have “unintentional negative consequences” for children and teens.
“We’re not software engineers, and we don’t pretend to be,” Charles Penner, a partner at Jana, told HuffPost. “And we’re not doctors and we don’t pretend to be. What we’re saying is, hey, software engineers, hey doctors, get together and form a real effort to understand this issue better and go where the research takes you.”
In their letter, representatives of the two investors ― which collectively control roughly $2 billion worth of Apple shares ― cite several recent studies conducted by universities, medical centers and mental health advocacy groups. Those findings suggest that children who often use smartphones or other digital devices are more likely to be distracted at school, develop depression and sleep less.
“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,” the letter reads, “or that the maker of such a powerful product has no role to play in helping parents to ensure it is being used optimally.”
Dr. Michael Rich, founder and director of Harvard University’s Center on Media and Child Health, partnered with the investors to help them craft their call to action.
Smartphones and other digital devices are “dramatically changing the way we behave, the way we relate to each other and the way our society really works,” Rich told HuffPost.
Apple “can be part of the solution and thus improve their product, and thus improve their customer satisfaction and loyalty,” he said. “There’s more than profits at stake here. There’s actual social change.”
Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this article.
The shareholders outlined five steps Apple could take to address their concerns, such as developing new parental controls that would allow for more variations of restricted use, and creating an expert committee of childhood development specialists to help study the issue.
There’s more than profits at stake here. There’s actual social change. Dr. Michael Rich, director of Harvard University's Center on Media and Child Health
“It’s not the tools themselves that are the problem ― it is actually what we do with them,” Rich said. “You wouldn’t give a power saw to an infant or a toddler, but you would introduce it to a child who is old enough to handle it effectively and do good things with it.”
Penner said the vast majority of reactions to the letter have been favorable. Jim Steyer, chief executive officer of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that promotes safe technology use for children, called the letter a “hugely important development” in curbing “digital addiction.”
A handful of tech leaders have recently spoken out against the potential negative effects of social media and device usage on children. Last year, two former Facebook executives separately argued that the social network is harmful to society.
“It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways,” Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, said in an interview with Axios in November. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
Penner says it’s time for tech companies to evolve with the research.
“The days of just kind of coming up with technology and throwing it out there,” he said, “and 10 years later, seeing what the potentially unintended consequences are, should be over.”