As It Happens

Make it easier for parents to limit kids' smartphone time, says expert who signed open letter to Apple

Two of Apple's largest investors have penned an open letter to the company, citing Jean Twenge's research that smartphone use by children can lead to depression.
Research found that that teens who spend five or more hours a day on electronic devices are 71 per cent more likely to have at least one risk factor for suicide. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Story transcript

Two of Apple's major investors are calling on the company to do more to combat what it callls iPhone addiction in children. 

In an open letter on Saturday, New York-based Jana Partners and the California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS) said the company needs to come up with tools parents can use to limit how their children access their phones.

The two investors collectively control $2 billion US worth of Apple shares.

The letter cites research by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge linking smartphone use in children to a higher risk of depression and suicide

Twenge, who also signed the letter, spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about what she would like Apple to do. 

What evidence do you have that smartphones are bad for kids?

In a recent study, we found that teens who spend five or more hours a day on electronic devices are 71 per cent more likely to have at least one risk factor for suicide — those things like depression and thinking about suicide, or actually having attempted suicide. 

Jean Twenge is the author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us. (Gregory Bull/The Associated Press)

But there are so many things that young people are dealing with now in the world we're in. How can you identify that it is from their devices?

I think what you're asking here is how can we know that the sudden increase in teen mental health problems can be traced to the phone.

In fact, starting around 2011 or 2012, there was a quite sudden and large increase in clinical depression, in self harm like cutting, and in the actual suicide rate among teens.

That time sequence doesn't fit economic cycles, it doesn't fit the way teens spend their time in terms of how much time they spend on homework or extracurricular activities. But it does line up perfectly with the time when smartphones become common.

Is it the smartphone or is it what they learn by being on the smartphone that's creating the problem?

It's possible that it's the direct effects of spending a lot of time on screens and on social media. But there's also potentially indirect effects, which could be even larger. So for example, teens who spend more time on their devices sleep less, and sleeping less is a huge risk factor for developing mental-health issues.

When you were doing this research, when you learned this data, how did you react with your own children? What did you do?

Well, there was one day I was making a graph for the book and it happened to show that every single screen activity was correlated with unhappiness and everything that you can do that wasn't on a screen, even homework, was correlated with more happiness.

And I got up from my chair and I took my children's tablets and shoved them in the back of a dresser drawer. I was kind of surprised. They barely even noticed that they were gone. So they ended up playing outside more and talking to each other more and, well, they ended up fighting more. But maybe they're learning social skills from that.   

Children play video games on smartphones while attending a public event on Sept. 22, 2012 in Ruesselsheim, Germany. Twenge says Apple should make it easy for parents to limit what their children can do on their phone, such as controlling who they can call and text. ( Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Is there something, though, that parents can do to mitigate the effects? I mean, is there nothing else you can do except take the devices away?

In fact, you shouldn't take the device away. That's the interesting and I think very good news piece of the research for both parents and teens is the kids who don't have a smartphone at all or are not on social media at all, they're actually not particularly happy or mentally healthy.

The sweet spot for happiness and mental  health for teens is those who have the devices, but use them about an hour or so a day, two hours at most.

So that's why I cosigned the letter asking Apple to think about this issue more clearly — to integrate a system that would make it easier for parents to not just hand their kids a smartphone with unlimited use, but that the use can be limited.

What's been the reaction from Apple to these suggestions?

They don't have an official response yet. There's certainly been a lot of discussion today. There have been some people who have said it should be the parents' job to regulate teens' phone use. 

Well, the ironic thing is, we couldn't agree more. That's actually exactly what we're suggesting, that Apple make it easier for parents to be able to monitor and potentially restrict their teens' phone use.

It'd be great to have some kind of way to do this easily so that phone could grow with the child.

— With files from Reuters

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Jean Twenge, listen in the player above.