Major investors target Apple for not doing enough to curb kids using smartphones too much

Two of Apple's biggest investors are urging the company to do more to help stop young people from using their products to an addictive level, which has increasingly become a concern for health and social advocates.

Investors with $2 billion in Apple shares pen open letter urging action

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests their are negative aspects to young people using social media and other digital technologies too much. (Enrique Calvo/Reuters)

Two of Apple's biggest investors are urging the company to do more to help stop young people from using their products to an addictive level, which has increasingly become a concern for health and social advocates.

In an open letter published Monday, Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS), urge the company to offer more tools to parents to allow them to limit children's access to their products, and help them make sure they are only being used beneficially.

The letter cites a growing body of scientific research that suggests screen time and social media have a particularly deleterious impact on growing minds. Among the effects gleaned from recent studies are a link to suicidal and depressive thoughts after spending too much time on social media, along with lower academic scores from students who use too much digital technology.

"There is a developing consensus around the world including Silicon Valley that the potential long-term consequences of new technologies need to be factored in at the outset, and no company can outsource that responsibility," the letter said. "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."

Among other suggestions, the letter urges the company to do three basic things:

  • Establish and consult with a committee with child development specialists.
  • Open up the company's vast amount of user data to child health researchers.
  • Enhance mobile device software so that parents have more options to protect their children's health.

Together, the two groups own roughly $2 billion US worth of Apple shares — the company is worth $887 billion in total — so they are targeted the company by appealing to its bottom line. 

Neil Bearse, a marketing professor with the Smith School of Business at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., says Apple is just the latest target of a wider campaign about digital issues.  

"We're walking around with a casino in the palm of our hand and we're being asked to show some restraint," Bearse said in an interview. "Sometimes we're not wired to turn away from these things."

Last month, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya lamented his role in setting the company on its path to dominance, and Bearse says it's the software makers who are just as culpable.

Bearse said calls for changes "have certainly been increasing in terms of the alarm around this issue."

In the letter, Jana and CalSTRS come at the company from a financial perspective, trumpeting the competitive advantage that Apple could have by getting out ahead of the issue.

"In the case of Apple, we believe the long-term health of its youngest customers and the health of society, our economy, and the Company itself, are inextricably linked," the letter said.

"As a company that prides itself on values like inclusiveness, quality education, environmental protection, and supplier responsibility, Apple would also once again be showcasing the innovative spirit that made you the most valuable public company in the world."

Bearse says focusing on the health of young minds is a new tactic, but they are hardly the only ones affected. "It doesn't take much to look around and see an adult of any age staring at their phone more than they'd like to admit," he said.

"No one on their deathbed says 'I wish I spent more time on my iPhone.'"

With files from the CBC's Meegan Read


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