Up until now, Apple has offered no guidelines for using its devices responsibly. Investors want this to change.
A pension fund and an activist investing group want Apple to give parents better tools for limiting their children's smartphone use. In a letter to the tech giant, the California State Teachers' Retirement System (Calstrs) and Jana Partners LLC, which together control about $2 billion worth of Apple shares, have also called on the company to research the effects of smartphone use on mental health.
These requests are based on new research, particularly by Dr. Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and author of iGen, that reveals how damaging and addictive smartphones are, especially for adolescents. Up until now Apple has provided no guidelines for how its devices should be used, nor has it taken a position on an appropriate age for phone use.
These two investors would like to see Apple develop "more intuitive" tools allowing parents to limit kids' time spent on smartphones, and to "help find solutions to questions like what is optimal usage and to be at the forefront of the industry’s response -- before regulators or consumers potentially force it to act."
The letter from Jana and Calstrs fits into a growing trend toward socially responsible investing, wherein taking a stance on important issues including the environment, immigration, and mental health are seen to benefit a company. Jana and Calstrs are concerned that, if Apple continues to neglect the damning evidence against its devices, the company will lose respect from the public and its stock value will plummet. But on a more personal level, many members of the teachers' union are worried about smartphones' deleterious effects on students in schools.
The Wall Street Journal quotes part of the letter:
"Apple can play a defining role in signaling 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.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, and no company can outsource that responsibility."
Intriguingly, the majority of commenters on the WSJ article criticized the investors' move, pointing out that they're essentially asking Apple to become the parent. Apple, they argue, would not need to create such tools and guidelines if parents were actually doing they job they're supposed to do. One commenter wrote:
"There is a little known and seldom used tool which can limit the use and exposure children have to technology; they are called parents. Granted this is an unusual solution adapting a concept from centuries, or at least decades ago, when people actually said 'no' to their children."
As a parent, I think a combination of the two approaches is ideal. If a company sells a product that's known to be damaging to mental (and even physical) health, that company does have a responsibility to speak openly about its risks. But parents must take responsibility for their children's wellbeing, too, and this is something that most do not do in the context of smartphones, possibly because they're addicted to their own devices, fear the inevitable adolescent backlash, or aren't familiar with the latest research.
At the very least, requests such as this one draw attention to an issue that's only just starting to make its way into the public eye. I expect we'll be hearing a lot more about this in the future.