An open letter to Apple's board of directors this month from Jana Partners and the California State Teachers' Retirement System, which together control $2 billion worth of Apple stock, summarized scientific research showing the negative consequences to young people from the ubiquitous presence of tech devices and social media. Among the troubling effects cited in studies: decrease in the ability to focus on educational tasks, difficulty with social interactions, loss of empathy, links to stress, and higher risks of depression and suicide.
Without question, there are many benefits to devices such as smartphones and tablets. They engage, entertain and educate in new and accessible ways. Mastering technology is key to living in an ever-changing world, and parents rightly worry about their children lagging behind. Unplugging completely is not an option. What, though, is the right balance? And who should be most responsible for the amount of screen time children are exposed to? Do makers of the devices need to do more to build in protections? Or do parents need just to do their job in setting limits for their children?
The Jan. 6 letter from the Apple shareholders offered thoughtful suggestions, including creating a committee of child-development experts to study the issue and developing better ways for parents to limit screen time. Parents, of course, are the ones who have to establish and enforce parameters; they would do well to reflect on the fact that two of the biggest tech figures in recent history — Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs — strictly limited the technology use of their own children. That Silicon Valley moguls understand better than the general public the addictive powers of smartphones and social media — particularly on young brains — gives them added responsibility to take the lead in coming up with solutions.
Good then that Apple, responding to the shareholders, said it is working on new tools and features to strengthen existing controls. And it's worth noting that Facebook is overhauling its news feed in a way that may lower engagement — even though it could hurt the company's bottom line. These are promising signs that tech companies are beginning to engage with the social problems their inventions have spawned.
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