Citing a number of recent studies that appeared to link cellphone overuse with feelings of addiction and other health issues, particularly among teens, the investors said that Apple's electronic devices lack sufficient safeguards for a society that is increasingly reliant on cellphones.
“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, or that the maker of such a powerful product has no role to play in helping parents to ensure it is being used optimally,” the letter read.
In a statement, Apple said, “We are committed to meeting and exceeding our customers’ expectations, especially when it comes to protecting kids."
A slew of research has suggested a connection between smartphones and anxiety or depression. One 2017 paper concluded that users who were suffering from those disorders may be more susceptible to what some call “smartphone addiction.” Another found that young people who were “addicted” to cellphones showed an imbalance in brain chemicals correlated with more severe insomnia and impulsiveness.
While concerns about cellphones and their effect on brain function have circulated among the public for decades, the letter marks the first time a tech company's own shareholders have raised the alarm, policy analysts say, signaling the potential for a wider shift in the industry.
“This is a seminal moment for shareholders to speak to this,” said Jim Steyer, the chief executive of Common Sense Media. The advocacy group has urged Americans not to use their devices at the dinner table with a public service campaign featuring Hollywood stars such as Will Ferrell and which is valued at $50 million in airtime. “This is a huge deal, and it's only going to get bigger.”
The letter also comes as Silicon Valley faces a larger reckoning with the public. The tech industry has seen its fortunes turn remarkably quickly in the past year as Americans discovered the extent to which fake news, online harassment, sexual misconduct and other troubling problems have affected their personal lives and workplaces.
Fadell, who left Apple in 2008 and created the Nest thermostat, which was later bought by Google, is the latest is a string of prominent insiders to become critical of the role of technology companies – and to express regret or concern about the products they created. Two prominent former Facebook executives, including the company’s first president and its head of growth, also recently described Facebook as a product that was built to hook users in unhealthy ways. Like Fadell, one of Facebook's former executives, Chamath Palihapitiya used the term “dopamine” hit to describe the impact of tech products, from Facebook to Apple Watch.
Saturday's letter from shareholders said that adopting a more sensitive approach to children's well-being would be good for business. Apple could benefit financially, it said, by making its devices and software more attractive to consumers.
The shareholders also said that Apple's design choices force parents to make binary safety decisions, such as whether to enable or disable entire apps. A better alternative, some experts say, would be to allow a more flexible approach in which parents could decide how much of an app's content is accessible, or to create notifications that would remind parents to talk about screen use with their children.
On Apple's iOS, users have access to parental controls that are known as “restrictions.” Restrictions can prevent a device from displaying certain apps, features and services, which the parent can specify. Other features, such as Guided Access, can help prevent children from straying from a particular app, while Ask to Buy requires an adult or other authorized person to approve app or in-app purchases.
Many digital safety experts draw a distinction between the devices that have grown ubiquitous in society and the digital apps or services that run atop them. In many cases, policy analysts reserve their strongest criticism for social networking companies such as Facebook and Twitter, which they say deliberately engineer their products to increase the amount of time and attention users devote to them.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has long held that children under the age of 2 should not be given any screen time and that older children's screen time should be closely regulated, said Stephen Balkam, the chief executive of the Family Online Safety Institute. That guidance was first developed in 1999. Since then it has changed some, but not much.
The medical community is less confident about using the word “addiction” to describe the overuse of the devices, Balkam said. While it may be tempting for consumers to reach for the word, it has strong clinical overtones that is not supported by the research.
“I would be extremely careful in using the word digital ‘addiction,’ ” he said. “The medical profession has not declared this to be an addiction. Certainly the products and apps are very compelling. Yes, there is behavior you could describe as obsessive, both for kids and adults. But to describe it as an addiction is, quite frankly — it crosses a line.”
Writer Elizabeth Dwoskin contributed to this report.