Apple plans to release new software in September that will allow people to set limits on their own use of smartphones and, most importantly, allow parents to monitor and limit the time their children spend on those devices.
It’s a bold move for a company that has profited greatly from the increased usage and popularity of smart devices, but it comes after pressure from some interest groups and concerns raised by surveys that draw correlations between too much screen time and depression, anxiety, lower life satisfaction and less satisfaction with relationships.
Among the most prominent of those studies is the American Family Survey, an annual, nationwide poll from the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. The most recent of these found a correlation between heavy phone use and relationship troubles. Often, the problem has more to do with parental use of smart devices, which can lead to feelings of neglect in children, than with usage by children. But overusing phones produces bad effects in children, as well, especially as they use the devices to socialize, rather than to speak face to face with friends.
For more than 100 years, Americans have become used to seeing technological advances change their lives. But the addictive power of internet-connected smart devices poses challenges that far exceed those produced by previous inventions. Parents once fretted over children spending too much time watching television, but they always had firm control over the on/off switch in their homes. Smartphones, however, remain with children in their pockets throughout the day. Children may watch and use them in a variety of settings.
That makes Apple’s monitoring function especially important.
However, it’s worth noting that Apple won’t be the first to market a device designed to limit usage. As the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, an app called Moment helps people limit their phone time and has attracted 5.5 million users.
But its founder, Kevin Holesh, told the Journal those users have succeeded in reducing their time on the devices by an average of only two minutes per day.
To be most effective, Apple will need to monitor the effectiveness of its new software, make those results public and find ways to tweak and update it as needed. It should enlist the help of experts and groups dedicated to solving the problem. Simply introducing the concept will not be enough.
As with any technology, users will be free to engage and disengage limits. The ultimate answer to smartphone addiction lies with consumers.
The American Family Survey found people greatly underestimate the time they spend with their phones, with 70 percent of adults feeling they spend “just the right amount of time … .” Yet the study found evidence of relationship problems and other emotional issues that belie that feeling.3 comments on this story
The survey also found a majority of adolescents who own a phone have some form of parental restriction in place, such as limits to phone use after a certain hour or during family activities. That speaks to the desire of parents to help their children navigate the often difficult responsibility of using a smart device — with near-unlimited capabilities — in the safest way. Apple's move is likely to facilitate that sort of parental protection.
If nothing else, the Apple software will let people know the extent of the time they spend on their phones, which might surprise many. It also will give them access to an on/off switch to their children’s devices.
It’s a good step, but not a final solution to electronic addictions.