Sorry, parents, Apple can’t keep kids from getting addicted to phones: experts

Sorry, parents, Apple can’t keep kids from getting addicted to phones: experts
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TORONTO — Tech experts say parents shouldn’t count on Apple making its phones and tablets less addictive for kids.

While two of the tech giant’s biggest shareholders are pushing for new features to help limit damaging screen time for children, experts say there is no easy fix and the responsibility will remain with parents to do what’s best for their kids.

Apple has quickly responded by saying it already has a number of parental controls built into its iPhones and iPads and “new features and enhancements (are) planned for the future.”

MediaSmarts director of education Matthew Johnson says there’s still no consensus on whether kids can be truly addicted to screens, but there’s no question that “excessive use” of phones and tablets can affect physical and mental health.

He’d like to see Apple implement a tool that would set a “usage curfew” to limit a device’s capabilities in the evening when a child should be getting ready for bed.

Johnson says controls should be more than a simple on-off switch so parents can adjust access as they see fit. But he cautions that consumers can’t rely on technology companies to make devices that are risk-free and don’t require good parenting.

“It’s important that (parental control features) not be something that is seen as a complete solution, what’s really important is as our kids are getting older we gradually give them more and more responsibility,” says Johnson.

“What would be very helpful is a (feature) where we’re not setting really strict limits as parents, we’re not directly supervising them but they don’t have total freedom either. We’re able to maybe put limits where we think they’re necessary, we’re able to give them reminders, and we might be able to set that curfew period.”

The latest debate over how much tech companies can prevent addiction was spawned by an open letter sent by New York-based Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, which collectively own US$2 billion of Apple stock.

“Apple can play a defining role in signalling 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,” reads the letter.

“Doing so poses no threat to Apple, given that this is a software (not hardware) issue and that, unlike many other technology companies, Apple’s business model is not predicated on excessive use of your products. In fact, we believe addressing this issue now by offering parents more tools and choices could enhance Apple’s business and increase demand for its products.”

There’s relatively little that Apple can do to keep kids from getting glued to their screens given that its the content on devices that is truly addictive, says Aimee Morrison, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo who studies technology’s impact on culture.

“I think the only area that control can come from is going to have to be direct parental limits,” says Morrison, noting that Google Android devices and any phone or tablet made by rival companies are equally addictive.

While some have questioned whether phones and tablets are any more alluring than television or video games were to kids in the earliest days of those technologies, Morrison argues portability is the distinctive factor.

“In the first golden age of television in the 1950s when homes were getting these sets in the living room — and they received three channels — parents could walk in the room and turn it off. With early video gaming systems as well the consoles were hooked up to the television in the main room,” she says.

“The thing with an iPhone or an iPad is it goes everywhere with us. You used to be able to rip your kid out from in front of the TV and say, ‘Come on, we’re going grocery shopping,’ but now they won’t even get in the car without saying, ‘Can I play with your phone?’

“I think it’s the scale of the use and the ubiquity and pervasiveness.”

Even if it doesn’t have a direct responsibility to parents, it’s not surprising that Apple quickly committed to doing more, says Neil Bearse, director of marketing at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business.

Apple has long marketed itself as a company that believes in family values and that creates “safe” products parents can trust, says Bearse.

“(Former CEO) Steve Jobs went on the record essentially to say there will never be pornography in the App Store,” Bearse says.

“You could come at it with a cynical commercial lens of saying they want to continue the iPhone-user pipeline to be as young as they can get…. For a parent who’s debating, ‘Which phone should I give to my kids for Christmas this year,’ the family-friendly angle is definitely in line with those values.”

Michael Oliveira, The Canadian Press

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