Two people on their phones in a cafe

Investors call on Apple to tackle excessive smartphone use

Image credit: Dreamstime

Two major investors in Apple are calling on the company to take corporate responsibility by researching the impact of unhealthy smartphone use among young people, and developing tools to help curb unhealthy use.

This push is unusual, coming from major Wall Street presences, rather than smaller groups of activists. Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (one of the largest pension plans in the US) collectively control $2bn in Apple shares.

In a letter sent to the company this weekend, they argued that Apple must respond to what is considered by many to be the public health issue of technology addiction.

“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,” the letter said.

“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 shareholders have called on Apple to conduct research into the impact of excessive technology use on the mental health of its users, establish an expert panel to tackle the issue, as well as to take proactive steps to develop software which could help parents control their children’s phone use.

Apple does not offer public guidance to parents on how to manage their children’s smartphone use, although it and many other tech companies provide some parental controls, such as adult content filters.

It is estimated that young people spend nearly a day a week on their phones. The impact of such heavy and persistent technology use on developing brains is not well understood. Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, and Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, reportedly raised their children with a low-tech lifestyle, limiting use of gadgets due to concern about the impact of excessive technology use.

Concern surrounding unhealthy use of social media, video games and gadgets is just one aspect of a growing scepticism about the social impact of Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook, Apple and Google. Another major issue facing these companies is the real-life impact of violent, abusive or manipulative content posted by users on internet platforms.

There is some concern among investors that shares in tech giants such as Apple could suffer in the future if they fail to take on greater social responsibility for their products and services.

“Socially responsible investing” aims to promote social and environmental responsibility by corporations in their activities. For instance, Jana is planning to raise a multi-billion dollar fund to lobby major companies to take corporate responsibility.

Apple is on track to become the first company with a market value of $1 trillion; it is currently worth nearly $900 billion. Given the sheer size of the company, these two shareholders have limited clout, although major figures in Apple, including CEO Tim Cook, have paid lip service to corporate responsibility. In an interview with the New York Times in August 2017, Cook said that the company has a “moral responsibility” to help the US economy.

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