Apple is the only thing that can save kids from the app store

Not terribly far off.
Image: mashable/bob Al-Greene

It’s fine-tuned to be as engaging as possible, so that you don’t want to put it down once you pick it up. It lacks real substance and is engineered to be desirable. With their sufficiently random rewards systems giving you unpredictable dopamine hits, they’re designed to be addictive. You don’t need it, but you want it, and companies spend billions of dollars each year to convince you to consume it. 

Once you tap, you can’t stop. 

Our addiction to smartphones has taken on many of the hallmarks of the junk food that has become ubiquitous in our culture. 

Adults have enough problems with this kind of self control in the face of advertising. For kids, it’s an entirely unreasonable ask and a growing body of research speaks to the profound negative effects smartphones are having on them. Excessive smartphone use is correlated with depression and other negative mental health outcomes. 

The discussion around smartphones and children continued this week after two investor groups urged Apple in an open letter to create settings that would allow parents meaningful control over their children’s use of smartphones, prompting renewed scrutiny on the effects of this technology on an inherently vulnerable population. The company currently has a limited set of parental controls

Of course you’re not going to get rid of your smartphone. You probably use it for work, the camera is great, and it makes all the times you have to wait during the day vastly more bearable. Even for kids they can be entertaining and helpful in age-appropriate ways. And it’s a great way to go out to dinner and have everyone live through the experience.

Image: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images

The problems is, as with junk food, it’s a constant battle of regulating how much you interact with your smartphone, what apps you put on it, and what attention you let it claim, with billions of dollars on the line for your attention and your kids’ attention. 

Apple has responsibility here. They designed and produced the most revolutionary consumer tech product in the history of the world — and did so with seemingly little to no concern about the consequences. Consider in-app purchases, where kids were able to run up their parents’ credit card bills with little to no oversight. 

“The developer and us have the same exact interest, which is to get as many apps out in front of as many iPhone users as possible,” Jobs said when he introduced the app store.

Apple’s app ecosystem worked out maybe better than Jobs could have ever imagined. Millions of apps are now locked in competition for a finite amount of attention, similar to food companies battling each other for “stomach share.” If you’re not checking Instagram, you’re on Snapchat. Either way, you – kid or adult – are being manipulated with an array of psychological tools so you just. keep. eating.

When Jobs first announced the app store, he was clear that certain types of apps, like porn or invasions of privacy, wouldn’t be allowed. Those standards are long overdue for updating. 

We’re starting to recognize that the problem of junk food and poor diets is not about people’s willpower, but about controlling the environment — especially when dealing with kids, who can’t reasonably be expected to understand that an ad for candy doesn’t have their best interests in mind. A similar dynamic is at play in the app store. 

Understanding what junk food and advertising does to children has led to some action. Industry groups in Europe and America have pledged to restrict or alter their food advertising to children. School districts continue to ban junk food from their vending machines and improve the quality of school lunches.  

The government could (and maybe should) step in here, but there’s a logical choke point to this system: Apple. 

Tony Fadell, who invested in the iPhone and iPod, recently called on Apple to take action.

These stakeholders want Apple to build into iOS the ability to regulate screen time and content. It’s a compelling proposition, and probably one of the only viable ways to make a dent in the issue. You can’t eat the Oreos nearly as easily if they aren’t in the house.

Giving parents these tools “poses no threat to Apple, given that this is a software (not hardware) issue and that, unlike many other technology companies, Apple’s business model is not predicated on excessive use of your products,” the authors of the investor letter wrote.

Whether Apple makes meaningful changes to the way iOS is built is an open question, despite their pledge to do so. Majors social media companies have also started to face similar pressure, though their business models, which rely on engagement, make it less likely they’ll make big tweaks. Facebook recently had an “its not us it’s you” reaction to research showing that use of its service was correlated with poorer mental health outcomes. YouTube Kids, the supposedly child-friendly gated community, has been found to be full of violent and inappropriate content. Definitely don’t let your kids go to actual YouTube, or they might stumble on a dead body

Apple isn’t YouTube or Facebook, but it’s encountering a version of those companies’ “platform problem.” It can no longer disavow responsibility for what its customers have access to as it reaps the benefits of providing that access. 

The tech industry may not yet be at such a serious inflection point – the science is less clear and the harms more diffuse than cancer or even diet. But if there is one group that society will take action to protect and regulate, it’s children. If Apple models its products after the healthy snack logo it puts on them, the company may find it inspires a new level of devotion and loyalty that would put its current fanbase to shame. 

If it doesn’t, it may end up a digital version of a trashy vending machine. Not a place where you want to spend your money. 

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