It’s the easiest babysitting hack known to modern adults attempting to pacify a fussy baby: Take a smartphone, find a game or show, put it in the child’s hands, and—lo and behold! The kid is quiet, eyes wide, and still.
And that magic trick seems to extend to children who can crawl, tots who are just stringing together words, kids toddling into preschool, and—most obviously, at least when it comes to psychological research—tweens and teens hunched over their smartphones, oblivious to the world.
That worries a group of Apple investors, who are calling on the company to investigate what effects this screen time has on children’s brains and development. In a letter co-signed by New York investment firm JANA Partners and Anne Sheehan, the director of corporate governance at the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (the largest public teacher’s pension fund in the country), the investors implore the tech giant to fund research into what their ubiquitous products might do to a child’s brain:
The average American teenager who uses a smart phone receives her first phone at age 10 and spends over 4.5 hours a day on it (excluding texting and talking). 78% of teens check their phones at least hourly and 50% report feeling ‘addicted’ to their phones. 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. It is also no secret that social media sites and applications for which the iPhone and iPad are a primary gateway are usually designed to be as addictive and time-consuming as possible, as many of their original creators have publicly acknowledged.
The letter is signed on behalf of investors whose shares amount to nearly $2 billion of Apple stock. Apple’s total valuation is about $900 billion.
It’s a small proportion, but the letter is sparking conversation about what it means to be addicted to technology—particularly among the youngest users of smart technology. It cites research and science published within childhood psychology, including that of Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University whose most recent book, iGen: Why Today’s Superconnected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, tackles the effects of smartphones on teens.
Twenge said she first spotted some odd trends in teenage mental health in 2011 and 2012, when smartphones were becoming more common among teens. “There was a doubling in the suicide rate and tripling in emergency room admissions of self-harm among young girls,” Twenge said. “And there was a 20 percent increase in the clinical depression rate.”
To Twenge, the link between screen time and mental health seemed apparent. And while she said her research doesn’t touch on addiction so much as the mental health of teens based on smartphone use, she said there’s undeniable proof that screen time has a negative effect on developing minds, based on research that was published in November in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.