PALO ALTO — Sanjay Kannan and Evan Sabri Eyuboglu didn’t see themselves as radical protesters. Rather, they picketed outside Apple’s Infinite Loop headquarters in Cupertino as another group trying to shed light on a growing technological challenge: smartphone addiction.
Kannan and Eyuboglu, Stanford University seniors majoring in computer science, were among the four students who created the Stanford Students Against Addictive Devices two months ago for their class on ethics in coding. The initial idea mushroomed into a small advocacy group, as Kannan, Eyuboglu, Divyahans Gupta and Cameron Ramos protested outside Infinite Loop and the Apple Store in downtown Palo Alto last week and garnered local and national media attention.
All four students have complicated relationships with their smartphones and are relatively heavy users, Kannan and Eyuboglu told this news organization. But as they noticed people acted aloof and attached to their smartphones in social settings such as a shared dinner, they were troubled by the over-reliance.
“Until recently, we were addicted as anyone,” said Kannan. “All of our group turned the display to grayscale. We turned off notifications completely. We are more mindful of our smartphone use now.”
The Stanford students are not the only ones speaking out on the issue. Academics, Apple shareholders and even former Facebook executives have recently chimed in on the dangers of smartphone addiction. They have expressed concerns about the potential for long-term damages to children and young adults from smartphones and from apps by companies such as Facebook and Google.
“It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other,” Sean Parker, former Facebook president, told Axios in November. “It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
So far, there is no clear understanding of the long-term damages of smartphone addiction as smartphones have only been around for roughly a decade, said Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of the book “iGen.”
Existing research points to troubling signs, however. U.S. teenagers who spend five hours or more on electronic devices are 71 percent more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide) than those who spend less than one hour, according to Twenge’s research. Twenge warned smartphones for teenagers and children also negatively impact attention spans and social skills and may play a crucial role in a spike in U.S. teenager depression and suicide rates that began in 2011.
“It’s hard to say right now,” Twenge said. “But we are seeing mental health effects, and there may be social skills issues for some. Social skills take practice, and the kids are getting less practice.”
Parents also express major concerns over how much screen time their children get every day. According to an American Psychological Association survey of more than 3,500 U.S. parents, 58 percent say they are worried about the impact of social media on their children’s mental and physical health, and 48 percent say regulating their child’s screen time becomes a “constant battle.”
Twenge helped pen a public letter with Apple shareholders Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System in January, asking Apple to tighten its parental controls for children under the age of 18 with iPhones.
In response to the letter, Apple pledged to introduce new parental controls in future updates.
Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System both declined to comment for this article.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment.
However, numerous Apple employees expressed agreement with their cause and provided feedback, the Stanford students said, when they protested outside Infinite Loop. One told them to come back to Apple in September when the engineers hold an internal hackathon for default iOS apps; another told them to use bigger fonts on their picket signs.
Twenge said Apple’s parental controls so far “leave a lot to be desired” and she was hoping for more flexibility in its iOS, such as the ability to turn specific apps on and off and setting a timer for how many hours a day one can use an app.
The Stanford Students Against Addictive Devices agreed that control over apps in iOS need more flexibility in turning them on and off. The students offered more ideas, such as an “Essential mode” that only does calls, texts and photos, and an in-house app that better tracks for users which apps they use extensively and alerts them of their usage.
Kunnan and Eyuboglu also emphasized the importance of personal responsibility by smartphone users.
While the issue impacts all smartphone makers around the world, Twenge and the Stanford students pointed out that Apple’s business model is primarily selling smartphones rather than serving up addictive services. They suggested Apple could improve options that would enable users to take more responsibility.
“If they gave customers more options to use these devices, they might sell even more,” Twenge said.
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