Early iPhone designer calls on Apple to curb tech addiction

Many of us are never far from our smartphones. We talk to friends, share photos and information, and check notificati...

Posted: Jan 12, 2018 7:42 AM
Updated: Jan 12, 2018 7:42 AM

Many of us are never far from our smartphones. We talk to friends, share photos and information, and check notifications constantly.

Tech companies have created an addictive technology -- and some parents and tech leaders are calling on companies to do something about it.

Tony Fadell, a former Apple executive who helped design the iPod and iPhone, has become an outspoken advocate for recognizing tech addiction and implementing digital controls.

"We need to learn about these unintended consequences and figure out ways to mitigate them and to help us learn a new way of integrating these into our lives," Fadell told CNNTech's Laurie Segall in an interview.

Fadell -- the founder of smart thermostat company Nest, which was acquired by Google in $3.2 billion in 2014 -- equates healthy technology use to clean eating. Fadell left Nest in 2016.

"We have product information on the side of every product about what's contained in it," said Fadell. "We have scales to tell us our weight. We know calorie consumption and we can track it. We have programs like Weight Watchers and all these other things to allow us to maintain or try to help us."

But food and alcohol are regulated by the federal government, requiring displayed nutritional information to educate the public. Similar measures for technology do not exist. For example, the packaging of an iPhone doesn't come with a time suggestion for daily use.

Fadell suggested tech companies should bake in products that let users measure their tech consumption and set goals for their behavior.

Related: Investors to Apple: Fight iPhone addiction among kids

In addition to Fadell's concerns, Apple chief design officer Jony Ive previously said using your iPhone too much could be considered "misuse."

In a letter to Apple this week, two investors called on the company to do more to prevent children specifically from becoming addicted to their devices. California State Teachers' Retirement System and Jana Partners -- both funds own about $2 billion in Apple stock -- cited research that found children can be negatively affected by too much screen time. This includes a heightened risk of suicide and depression.

Apple has included some parental controls in its devices since 2008 via tools that restrict some app usage or making in-app purchases. Other standalone apps exist to help track kids' digital use. Circle and Screen Time let parents filter out content and set screen time limits.

But the pair of investors wants Apple to do more. According to a recent Bloomberg report, the tech giant plans to add more parental control features.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

The letter is a part of a growing effort to call on companies to reevaluate time spent on technology. In a Ted Talk last year, former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris said companies are engaged in a race for attention, but it's important for social networks and users to figure out what the boundaries should be.

"If you see a notification, it schedules you to have thoughts that maybe you didn't intend to have," Harris said. "If you swipe over that notification, it schedules you into spending a little bit of time getting sucked into something that maybe you didn't intend to get sucked into."

Social media has trained us to expect rewards for our behavior -- when we post a photo on Facebook or Instagram, we want friends to Like it. We reciprocate with our own Likes, and platform engagement goes up.

Citing studies, Facebook has admitted passively using the service can put people in bad moods, a negative side effect of mindlessly using tech. But some studies showed interacting with people on the site can be beneficial.

Facebook's Like button co-creator Leah Perlman, now an illustrator, said she's proud of creating the feature, but takes some responsibility for those who feel bad using the site. In a blog post published in November, she said believes social media can be both supportive and dishonest.

"We haven't always had Like counts, but we've always found ways to gauge our likability," she wrote. "Social media may be simplifying the process, or amplifying the experience, but it's not creating it. In one way, it's a hall of mirrors, but in another way, it's an actual mirror."

In a Facebook post last year, fellow Like button co-creator Justin Rosenstein said technologists need to take responsibility for designing tools intended to make users spend more time online.

"We all can take responsibility for mindful choices about the role we allow tech and media to play in our lives," he wrote. "When we do, technology is a powerful tool for helping us collaborate toward our highest goals; when we don't, we relinquish control of ourselves, and potentially our democracies."

When it comes to parents monitoring screen time, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children ages 2 to 5 limit use to one hour each day, and content should only include "high quality" programming. The organization published its recommendations for children of all ages in 2016.

Sonia Livingstone, a professor of social psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at London School of Economics, has said not all screen time is bad. She believes parents shouldn't focus on the amount of time spent in front of screens, but rather the context and content of the digital media.

In 2016, Livingstone co-authored the paper "Families and screen time: Current advice and emerging research," which looked at parents and kids' relationships with technology.

"When parents are told that their only role is to police and to monitor, they are left unsupported in helping their children access the unique benefits offered by the digital age," the authors wrote.

Additional reporting by CNNTech's Laurie Segall

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