Saturday, January 20, 2018

Is Apple Responsible for the Well-Being of Our Kids?

I was surprised to see that the most-viewed article on the blog this week was one that I wrote almost 5 years ago, What to Do if Your Kids Are Obsessed with Technology. (Thanks to whoever shared that on Facebook!) Reading it again, it seems to hold up fairly well, and I would still offer the same advice to parents wondering what to do if their young one seems too drawn to screens.

However, many things have changed since 2013. Smartphones have gotten so ubiquitous that every teenager I see has one, and most children older than 8 or 9 seem to have one as well (and if not a smartphone, then almost certainly a tablet or Chromebook). Snapchat and Instagram have gotten ever more entrenched as the platforms of choice for young people’s socializing and selfie-expression, and games with addictive mechanisms have proliferated like weeds. We’re even having a cultural conversation about whether a generation has been destroyed because of the effects of smart devices. I don’t think it’s gone quite that far, but I hear constantly from parents about the difficulty they have trying to separate their kids from their screens. 

Now, I am an old-school Apple fan, using Apple computers and devices almost exclusively ever since my first experiences with an Apple II in elementary school. So it was with great interest that I saw the recent headlines about investors calling for Apple to look into how their technology may be harming kids and to mitigate any potential harms. Then, earlier this week, Farhad Manjoo went even further with an article in the New York Times about how Apple can help save all of us, adults included, from the attention-grabbing consequences of their technology by building a “less-addictive iPhone.” I agree with Manjoo that this represents a great opportunity for Apple, since their business model does not depend primarily on people using their devices nonstop. However, designing software to be less addictive for all is a much more complicated issue than putting in better parental controls for minors, so I’m going to focus on the latter for rest of this post.

Ultimately, I think the answer to the question posed in the title of this article is that parents are responsible for their kids, but parents need help, and Apple can do a lot more to make it easier for parents to set appropriate limits. Even for savvy parents who do not allow screens in bedrooms, sometimes the lure of the device is so tempting that a kid would sneak it into their rooms at night. Many parents I work with try to set screen time limits, but they can’t keep watch on their kids all the time, and it’s hard for a parent to know how much time a kid is spending watching videos vs. playing games vs. working on homework. And even when a parent can accurately track the time and tells a child to stop using the device, this often leads to arguments and fights if the child is super-engaged in what they’re doing (I probably see a biased sample of kids who tend to get very irritable when this happens). Plus, I’m sure that Apple can come up with a much more elegant solution than a lockbox with a timer

Most of us have probably heard by now that defaults matter, whether it’s for organ donation rates, food choices, or 401k participation. And right now the default when setting up a new iPhone or iPad is that the user is all-powerful; she can access all apps, all sites, and use the device at all hours of the day and night. Stricter controls have to be manually enabled, which many parents simply do not do. Also, Apple’s current parental controls (under Settings -> General -> Restrictions) are rudimentary: specific apps can be restricted, and if a child tries to download a new app from the App Store, parents can choose to get an alert on their device that would allow them to approve or deny the purchase. There is also a content filter for apps, movies, and music that restricts adult content, and a website filter that blocks access to adult sites.

This is not a bad start, but far from adequate in today’s environment. I think Apple should ask during the initial setup of a new device whether the device is intended for a minor, and if so, the age of the child. With that info, Apple should then set defaults (which the parent can always change later) that are age-appropiate, in line with expert recommendations on screen time, gaming, and how much sleep kids need. If a device is in “kid mode” and it runs up against preset time limits, it should give the user a warning 5 minutes and 1 minute before the time limit is reached, so there will not be any surprises when the user gets locked out of what they’re doing. The device should also lock itself 1 hour before bedtime. If the child wants to use it past a time restriction, the parent would have to grant permission on a case-by-case basis. 

Here’s an example of what I think might be roughly appropriate for 2 broad age groups:

Kids (6-12)
Video watching: 30 mins
Games: 30 mins
Nighttime: No use after 8pm
Apps: All apps (except Phone, Mail, Messages, Music, Photos) initially restricted; parents can manually enable other apps
Contacts: Only allow calls/texts/email with approved contacts
Content: Block adult content and websites

Teens (13-18)
Video watching: 1 hr
Games: 1 hr
Social media apps: 1 hr
Total use of above categories: 2 hrs
Nighttime: No use of most apps after 10pm, but can play music or podcasts
Apps, Contacts, Content: Less restrictive than for kids, but parents should have an easy way of seeing how much time is spent in different apps.

If you think I’m being too strict, then you probably haven’t been paying attention to how much tech industry executives tend to limit their children's access to devices. As I said on the Twitter:

I was encouraged recently when Apple took a step to look after for its users’ interests by requiring that game developers disclose the odds in games that have gambling-style mechanics. Up to now, Apple may have viewed parental control software as a third party opportunity, creating an opening for successful businesses like OurPact or Disney's Circle. But Apple also has a long tradition of “sherlocking,” in which they steal the best features of a third party product and incorporate them into their operating system. When it comes to setting better defaults for kids, I would encourage Apple to sherlock away!