It's up to you, not Apple

Consumers shouldn't count on Apple redesigning its phones and tablets to make them less addictive for kids, say experts, who caution that good parenting may be the only solution.

While two of Apple's biggest shareholders are pushing for new features to help limit damaging screen time for children, tech observers say there's no easy fix and the responsibility will remain with parents.

"I think the only area that control can come from is going to have to be direct parental limits," says Aimee Morrison, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo who studies technology's impact on culture.

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.

Apple 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."

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, says MediaSmarts director of education Matthew Johnson.

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. Controls should be more than a simple on-off switch, he adds, so parents can adjust access as they see fit.

But consumers can't rely on technology companies to make devices that are risk-free and don't require good parenting, Johnson says.

"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," he says.

Even one of the iPhone's early designers now has reservations about the device's addictive qualities — for kids and adults. Tony Fadell, who left Apple and went on to co-design the Nest digital thermostat, tweeted that "device addiction is real" and "we need to know where the line is and when we've crossed over to addiction."

He suggests "screen time rules, living in the moment, screen-free meals, relearning analog objects like books and writing and sketching, tech-free days for the family to be together" as possible strategies.


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