Apple and its CEO, Tim Cook, both appear to be aware of the problems that excessive screen-time can have on people, especially children - yet now the company risks outrage over its apparent decision to remove or restrict third-party screen-time apps on its iPhone platform.
If your iPhone’s software is updated, you’ve probably noticed your device now offers a weekly update on how you’re doing, or overdoing, when it comes to screen-time. Depending on your point of view, you’re either relieved or embarrassed at your smartphone infatuation — or let’s just call it what it is: addiction.
Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, has been outspoken in linking screen-time to a laundry list of social and health problems. “If you’re looking at a phone more than someone’s eyes, you’re doing the wrong thing,” he said at a New York City business forum last week, making more than a few headlines.
Organizations such as the World Health Organization have been vocal about what they say are screen-time’s negative effects on young children, especially those under one year of age. And as anyone can tell you from his or her last painful date, excessive screen-time at the dinner table or, crikey, in the movie theater, can lead to unreturned texts or even ghosting.
Apple, along with its peers in the tech sector, says it is determined to do what is possible to limit customers’ screen-time in the name of salvaging social skills worldwide. So, why would the iPhone maker make it difficult for third-party apps designed to help smartphone users, and especially parents, track and limit the time they and family members spend on those darned screens?
As the New York Times reported, Apple has either restricted or removed 11 out of the 17 most downloaded screen-time management apps. Many other apps that are less well-known have also had a similar experience with Apple’s App Store.
“In some cases, Apple forced companies to remove features that allowed parents to control their children’s devices or that blocked children’s access to certain apps and adult content,” wrote Jack Nicas for the Times. “In other cases, it simply pulled the apps from its App Store.”
The Times also quoted app developers who described Apple’s actions as “out of the blue with no warning” and “systematically killing the industry.”
Two companies that have parental-control apps on Apple’s platform, and have claimed they have lost business due to Apple’s policies, filed a complaint with the European Union’s Competition Office.
Apple’s apparent about-face on allowing users to manage and self-regulate screen time is about as abrupt as the company’s past decision to pay more attention to the problem. Early last year, two investors with a sizable number of shares in Apple, Jana Partners and California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), urged the tech behemoth to do more about children’s screen-time addiction.
To Apple’s credit — as well as Cook’s — the company responded in kind. Certainly, the company couldn’t ignore the concerns of parents in the backyard of its headquarters in the Bay Area. “Just look at how more parents in Silicon Valley are prohibiting screen time for kids — that should tell you about what’s happening in this space,” Barie Carmichael said in an interview with TriplePundit earlier this year.
If Apple believes that its own technology, as opposed to effective apps that third parties are offering, is enough to curb screen-time, the company very well could plunge into a brand reputation crisis of its own making.
“The problem with efforts such as the Screen Time feature Apple added to the iPhone and similar ones that Google added to Android is that the companies don't seem to understand and aren't really addressing the underlying problem,” Tristan Harris, cofounder of the Center for Humane Technology and one of Silicon Valley’s most vocal critics, told Business Insider. “If the person is feeling the kind of anxiety and novelty-seeking craving in their lower nervous system that causes them to reach for their phone the second time this last 60 seconds ... it's not because they just need a seat belt or ... [need] a limit that says, 'don't do that.'"
But Harris’ conclusion that consumers need human connection, not just smartphone “sobriety,” at a first glance goes against these technology company’s business model, or at least that would be the short-term view.
Apple’s decisions to put the kibosh on screen-time and parental control apps are chess moves in the wrong direction. Silicon Valley is looking aloof and arrogant yet again — and runs the risk of losing the trust of more consumers and stakeholders as they seek a checkmate against companies that come across as determined to dictate the terms by which they confront society’s smartphone addiction.
Image credit: Meghan Schiereck/Unsplash
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.