With teen mental health deteriorating over five years, there’s a likely culprit

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Around 2012, something started going wrong in the lives of teens.

In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent. Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent.

In a new paper published in Clinical Psychological Science, my colleagues and I found that the increases in depression, suicide attempts and suicide appeared among teens from every background – more privileged and less privileged, across all races and ethnicities and in every region of the country. All told, our analysis found that the generation of teens I call “iGen” – those born after 1995 – is much more likely to experience mental health issues than their millennial predecessors.

What happened so that so many more teens, in such a short period of time, would feel depressed, attempt suicide and commit suicide? After scouring several large surveys of teens for clues, I found that all of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives: the sudden ascendance of the smartphone.

All signs point to the screen

Because the years between 2010 to 2015 were a period of steady economic growth and falling unemployment, it’s unlikely that economic malaise was a factor. Income inequality was (and still is) an issue, but it didn’t suddenly appear in the early 2010s: This gap between the rich and poor had been widening for decades. We found that the time teens spent on homework barely budged between 2010 and 2015, effectively ruling out academic pressure as a cause.

However, according to the Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership crossed the 50 percent threshold in late 2012 – right when teen depression and suicide began to increase. By 2015, 73 percent of teens had access to a smartphone.

Not only did smartphone use and depression increase in tandem, but time spent online was linked to mental health issues across two different data sets. We found that teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.

Of course, it’s possible that instead of time online causing depression, depression causes more time online. But three other studies show that is unlikely (at least, when viewed through social media use).

Two followed people over time, with both studies finding that spending more time on social media led to unhappiness, while unhappiness did not lead to more social media use. A third randomly assigned participants to give up Facebook for a week versus continuing their usual use. Those who avoided Facebook reported feeling less depressed at the end of the week.

The argument that depression might cause people to spend more time online doesn’t also explain why depression increased so suddenly after 2012. Under that scenario, more teens became depressed for an unknown reason and then started buying smartphones, which doesn’t seem too logical.

What’s lost when we’re plugged in

Even if online time doesn’t directly harm mental health, it could still adversely affect it in indirect ways, especially if time online crowds out time for other activities.

For example, while conducting research for my book on iGen, I found that teens now spend much less time interacting with their friends in person. Interacting with people face to face is one of the deepest wellsprings of human happiness; without it, our moods start to suffer and depression often follows. Feeling socially isolated is also one of the major risk factors for suicide. We found that teens who spent more time than average online and less time than average with friends in person were the most likely to be depressed. Since 2012, that’s what has occurred en masse: Teens have spent less time on activities known to benefit mental health (in-person social interaction) and more time on activities that may harm it (time online).

Teens are also sleeping less, and teens who spend more time on their phones are more likely to not be getting enough sleep. Not sleeping enough is a major risk factor for depression, so if smartphones are causing less sleep, that alone could explain why depression and suicide increased so suddenly.

Depression and suicide have many causes: Genetic predisposition, family environments, bullying and trauma can all play a role. Some teens would experience mental health problems no matter what era they lived in.

But some vulnerable teens who would otherwise not have had mental health issues may have slipped into depression due to too much screen time, not enough face-to-face social interaction, inadequate sleep or a combination of all three.

It might be argued that it’s too soon to recommend less screen time, given that the research isn’t completely definitive. However, the downside to limiting screen time – say, to two hours a day or less – is minimal. In contrast, the downside to doing nothing – given the possible consequences of depression and suicide – seems, to me, quite high.

It’s not too early to think about limiting screen time; let’s hope it’s not too late.

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Laptops in the Classroom

I’d Be an ‘A’ Student if I Could Just Read My Notes

Professors are banning laptops in class, driving college students to revert to handwriting—and to complain about it; ‘a hand cramp in government’

The Wall Street Journal

Handwriting notes in class
Handwriting notes in class PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO

Adam Shlomi says he is a good student at Georgetown University. But the sophomore is failing in one unexpected area: note-taking.

Back in his Florida high school, he brought a Chromebook to class, taking “beautiful, color-coded notes.” So he was shocked to learn many professors at the elite Jesuit university in Washington, D.C., don’t allow laptops in their lecture halls.

I’d Be an ‘A’ Student if I Could Just Read My Notes

With nearly illegible handwriting—a scrawl of overlapping letters with interchangeable t’s and f’s, g’s and y’s—Mr. Shlomi, 20 years old, begs notes from friends, reads textbooks and reviews subjects on YouTube when it’s time to take a test.

As professors take a stand against computers in their classrooms, students who grew up more familiar with keyboards than cursive are struggling to adjust. They are recording classes on cellphones, turning to friends with better penmanship and petitioning schools for a softer line.

Chris Seeley, a senior political-economy major at the University of California, Berkeley, can handle an hour-long class that bans laptops. Ninety minutes gets tough. A two-hour lecture, such as one this semester, is brutal.

Nearly indecipherable hand-written lecture notes
Nearly indecipherable hand-written lecture notes PHOTO: ADAM SHLOMI

“My hand is yelling at me, basically,” he said of the feeling after handwriting final exams.

Mr. Seeley, 22, has established some shorthand, such as writing “nat” for “nation” or “national.” He isn’t always consistent with how he abbreviates, he said, and if he waits more than a few weeks to review the notes, deciphering the terminology can get confusing.

Professors are weary of looking out over a sea of laptops, with students’ faces aglow from who knows what. Are they taking notes? Ordering sneakers on Amazon? Checking out memes?

Some lament that students’ speedy typing lets them transcribe on autopilot, rather than synthesize class information.

“I got really tired of seeing them out there on their laptops and doing something other than pay attention to me,” said Carol Holstead, a University of Kansas associate journalism professor. She banned laptops three years ago from her Visual Storytelling class and now tells students when it is time to pick up their pens and take notes on a particular point.

Students complain professors just don’t understand how hard it is to write by hand.

Students using laptops to take notes
Students using laptops to take notes PHOTO: JEFF PACHOUD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

It’s hard to know how many college classes have gone laptop-free, as schools generally leave the policies up to professors. Some students can get to graduation logged on in every lecture hall, while others bemoan that the majority of their courses have banned electronic devices.

Laptop bans come as a generation of students who didn’t learn to write in script enters college. Though some public-school districts do require cursive instruction, Common Core education standards that guide many states’ curriculum policies don’t emphasize it.

Many public schools now encourage students to work on computers, some providing devices for them, making it all the more shocking when they enter college.

Faculty members say they make exceptions for students with disabilities, though those concessions are sometimes criticized because they “out” students who otherwise might not publicly disclose issues such as dyslexia or dysgraphia, an inability to write coherently.

University of Connecticut junior Christopher Wojick, 21, who studies landscape architecture, was tempted to lobby his sociology professor for a laptop allowance last year.

“That class was ridiculously hard to take notes in,” he said, recalling the professor’s speedy pace. “I was thinking, ‘Hmm. Do I have a disability?’ I was very close to making something up.”

He thought better of it and stuck to scribbling for the rest of the semester.

Isabella Bahner, a sophomore at Oklahoma State University, maintains a complex highlighting system to organize her notes.
Isabella Bahner, a sophomore at Oklahoma State University, maintains a complex highlighting system to organize her notes. PHOTO: ISABELLA BAHNER

Isabella Bahner, 19, a sophomore music-education major at Oklahoma State University, is sick of classmates nudging her for notes.

She has an elaborate system: a 12-pack of Sharpie pens and highlighters to organize her text in real-time, each color assigned a meaning. Red is for terms that are relatable or opposites; yellow for new vocabulary; green for people; light blue for dates. Highlight too fast, and the colors blur together.

“I definitely get a hand cramp in government and physical geography,” she said.

Friends know Ms. Bahner has thorough notes, and she’ll help out if they missed a class. But when someone comes calling who was at the lecture and didn’t bother to pick up his pen, she draws the line.

“They’re skipping or being lazy and then trying to bank off the fact that I go” and take good notes, she said.

The Cornell University student government last year unanimously passed a resolution encouraging the faculty to allow “greater freedom of student laptop usage.” Charles Van Loan, an emeritus professor of computer science and faculty dean at Cornell, said there was “zero interest” from the faculty senate in having such a policy for laptop use. “Keyboard noise is not protected under the First Amendment,” he said.

Noah Chovanec, 21, a senior industrial and labor-relations major who co-sponsored the resolution, said he prefers to write by hand, though it’s often disorganized and carries in smudges when he writes fast. “I probably should be pre-med, with my handwriting,” he said. “People have asked for my notes, and I say, ‘OK, I’m going to have to translate for you.’ ”

Cornell University senior Noah Chovanec takes notes for multiple classes in a single book. Above, from an American Studies class.
Cornell University senior Noah Chovanec takes notes for multiple classes in a single book. Above, from an American Studies class. PHOTO: NOAH CHOVANEC

Articles by professors instituting bans go viral every few months, often inspiring another set of teachers declaring tech-free zones.

Many of them point to academic studies showing that students taking computer notes retain less than those who handwrite, that multitasking makes people less effective at any single task and that grades can suffer when internet distraction is an option.

Rev. Kevin DeYoung, who teaches at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., had one student drop his class last fall because of a no-laptop policy.

Still, he’s pushing on with his device-free stance. “You’re not trying to be court stenographers,” he said, but rather learning how to identify important information.

This semester, Mr. DeYoung is going a step further in Pastoral Ministry, requiring students to participate in a weeklong digital fast. Afterward, they have to type a paper about the experience.

Mr. DeYoung got pushback from one unexpected source: his father, who works in radio. “He said, ‘You did what? I would never take your class.’ ”

The Future of Coding in Schools

Edutopia

Mitch Resnick, one of the creators of Scratch, on why he thinks coding should be taught in all schools—it’s not the reason you’d expect.

For more than three decades, Mitch Resnick has immersed himself in educational technology and innovative learning models. Now a professor at the MIT Media Lab, and a co-creator of the popular Scratch programming language, Resnick remains a tireless advocate for student-centered education, collaborative learning environments, and the idea that coding is a form of literacy.

His new book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play, is a look at our current educational moment. “Roughly two-thirds of grade school students will end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet,” Resnick contends, hinting at the emerging worlds of artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and “smart” houses. How do we prepare today’s students to meet that challenge?

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We talked with Resnick about the importance of coding in our school system, his thoughts on the changing roles of teachers, and new ways to engage students—and assess their work.

EDUTOPIA: You moved from journalism—writing about computers and business—to the field of educational technology and learning in the 1980s. What inspired that move?

MITCH RESNICK: The most important shift for me in thinking about computers and learning was actually the spring of 1982, the West Coast Computer Faire—which is like an early form of Maker Faire—and Seymour Papert was giving a keynote address. When I heard Seymour talk, it gave me new vision of what role computers might play in people’s lives: They weren’t just machines to get a job done—they could enable people to express themselves in new ways, and change the way people thought about themselves and thought about the world. That was very exciting to me.

EDUTOPIA: Are we still struggling with Papert’s early insight—almost astonishing at the time—that the computer isn’t just a processor of information but a platform for constructing human knowledge?

RESNICK: Yes I think so, and it mirrors a struggle in the education system that has nothing to do with technology. Many people think of learning and education as a process of delivering information or delivering instruction. Other people see learning and education as student-centered—learning is about exploring, experimenting, creating. Those are very different visions that predate the computer, but of course the computer can fit into either of those two models. It’s a wonderful device for delivering information, but it can also be a wonderful device for creating, exploring, and experimenting.

EDUTOPIA: There are influential people, like Apple CEO Tim Cook, saying, “What we need to do is get coding into every single public school. It needs to be a requirement in public schools across the board.” Is that right?

RESNICK: If it were up to me, I would introduce it. But I want to be careful because I don’t want to embrace it for the same reason that some people might. The first question I would ask is: “Why should we learn coding at all?” Many people embrace coding in schools as a pathway to jobs as computer programmers and computer scientists, and of course they’re right that those opportunities are expanding rapidly. But that’s not a great reason for everyone to learn how to code.

Very few people grow up to be professional writers, but we teach everyone to write because it’s a way of communicating with others—of organizing your thoughts and expressing your ideas. I think the reasons for learning to code are the same as the reasons for learning to write. When we learn to write, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas. And when we learn to code, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas in new ways, in a new medium.

EDUTOPIA: What does that look like in the school system? Does coding sit alongside math and reading? Is it integrated in some way?

RESNICK: These days I talk about our approach in terms of these four words that begin with the letter p: projects, passion, peers, and play. So that’s the approach I would take with coding, but also with any other learning: getting students to work on projects, based on their passion, in collaboration with peers, in a playful spirit. And each of those p’s is important. I think work on projects gives you an understanding of the creative process, how to start with just the inkling of an idea and then to build a prototype, share it with people, experiment with it, and continue to modify and improve it.

We know that kids are going to work longer and make deeper connections to the content when they are passionate about the ideas—when they care—and when they’re learning with and being inspired by peers. And I’d want to have kids experience coding in the same way.

EDUTOPIA: You’re describing a high-choice learning environment rooted in student passion and project work. Where’s the teacher in that mix?

RESNICK: The teacher still plays an incredibly important role, but in this approach it’s not so much about delivering instruction. One role the teacher is playing is the role of connector—connecting peers with one another to work together on solving problems. Teachers also act as catalysts by asking provocative questions: “What do you think will happen if…?” or “That surprised me, why do you think that happened?”

They’re consultants, too, and it’s not just about consulting on technical skills, but also about things like how you continue to work on something even when you are frustrated, or suggesting strategies for working with diverse groups of people. Finally, the teacher can be a collaborator, working together with kids on projects—because kids should see teachers as learners too.

EDUTOPIA: It sounds like a more democratic, open system, which seems to imply breaking down a lot of barriers?

RESNICK: I think breaking down barriers is a good way to think about it. When I think about the type of things that I might change in schools—and I know none of it is easy—a lot of it is about breaking down barriers. Break down the barriers between class periods, because 50-minute chunks are too constraining if you want to work on projects. Break down the barriers between disciplines, because meaningful projects almost always cut across disciplines. Break down the barriers between ages and have older kids work with younger kids—both groups benefit. And break down the barriers between inside of school and outside of school—have kids work on projects that are meaningful to their communities and bring people from the communities into the schools to support the teachers.

That’s one way of dealing with the challenge of a single teacher committed to 30 or more kids. It doesn’t have to be that way. Older kids can be helping younger kids, people from the community can be helping.

EDUTOPIA: A fair question—and a common criticism—is: How do you figure out whether kids are learning anything? How do you assess it?

RESNICK: I would take a portfolio-like approach, looking at what kids create. That’s what we do in our Scratch online community. You can see that a kid has created several dozen digital projects, and you can look through their projects and see their progression. For example, you might see the gradual adoption of new strategies—new types of artwork, but also new and improved programming structures.

I acknowledge that it’s difficult to arrive at quantitative measures, but I also think we each don’t necessarily need to. I sometimes make the analogy to the way I’ve been evaluated here at MIT. There are actually no quantitative measures in the process. Basically, they look at my portfolio: They see what I’ve created, they look at the trajectory and the progress over time, and they ask other people’s opinions about it. You’ll sometimes hear, “Well that’s not serious, we need quantitative measures to be serious.” Are they making the claim that MIT is not serious? I understand the criticism that it’s inefficient, but I think those are things we are going to need to deal with.

Again, it’s a big change and I’m not saying it’s easy, but I do think we need to move in that direction.

Teenage Inventor Alexis Lewis Thinks That Kids Have the Solutions to the World’s Problems

Watch This Great Video on Alexis

With a patent to her name and more likely on the way, the 15-year-old has made it her mission to inspire young innovators

SMITHSONIAN.COM

 

Benjamin Franklin invented swim flippers when he was 12 years old. Frank Epperson, age 11, conceived of the popsicle, and 16-year-old George Nissen thought up a trampoline.

Just last year, Kiowa Kavovit, then 6, became the youngest to pitch her invention—a liquid bandage called Boo Boo Goo—on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”

In the United States, there is no age requirement for filing a patent.

Alexis Lewis, a 15-year-old inventor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, wants children across the country to know that an inventor isn’t something you have to be when you grow up; they can be one now. Lewis holds a patent for a wheeled travois—a triangular load-carrying device with a bamboo frame and a bed of netting that she designed to serve Somali refugees, who need to transport their children many miles to camps and hospitals. Her patent-pending emergency mask pod is a football-shaped canister with protective gear that firefighters and first responders can throw through a window of a smoke-filled building to those trapped inside.

The two-time winner of the ePals-Smithsonian Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge, a competition for young inventors age 5 to 18, is a vocal advocate for “Inventing 101” courses to be a part of middle school curriculums.

Why should more people invent?

I think not only is it important to tell people that they can invent but it’s important also to tell them that they should be [inventing] because they have their own unique perspective on the world. Everybody has lived a different life, everybody has seen it [the world] slightly differently and I think everybody has a slightly different take on each problem. And I think if we all work together we can solve a tremendous number of problems.

What motivates you to invent?

My inventions are motivated by one of two things usually. One, it’s a humanitarian issue, basically people who aren’t getting the help they need, people who are dying unnecessarily when they could be saved. Another reason that I often invent is that I’ll get myself absolutely buried in a piece of physics, just learning about it obsessively. Then, I start to realize that there are little things that can be done to make technologies revolving around it a little bit more efficient here, a little bit more effective there.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about the environment you grew up in and how that’s impacted you as an inventor?

My mom would always read to the family about various world issues. When Hurricane Katrina hit [Alexis was 5 years old], we learned all about that—what a hurricane was, how it worked, the effects of Hurricane Katrina itself, what they were doing to help clear out floodwaters, all sorts of fascinating stuff. Being homeschooled, I had a lot of free time in which I was encouraged to basically go and do and build almost anything I wanted. I had access to videos on any subject, so I got to learn about the science of everything, and I read voraciously. I think having those channels of knowledge open to me was completely invaluable.

Do you think you have some advantages as an inventor given the fact that you’ve started young?

I don’t mean to put adults down, but when you’ve grown up and you’ve seen the world for a long time, you think its one way. I’d say that starting young has had an advantage in that I have the ability to look at something and not think, “oh this is a problem that can’t be solved,” but instead think maybe we’ve been looking at it just a little bit wrong. Kids, since they haven’t been told this is something that would never work over and over, have the have the ability to do that.

What is Inventing 101? Where did the idea come from, and why is it important to you?

It’s a class I hope to have administered to middle school students across the country that would basically tell them that they are capable of inventing. It would show them kids who have already invented. If people aren’t told when they’re young that they can invent, it’s going to be much harder to convince them that they can.

I had this idea when I was looking back at the stuff I had done, at my inventions and realizing that these are some simple [designs.] It’s not going to necessarily be the collapsible travois with custom made specially fabricated joints, it’s going to be the simple bamboo one that anybody can make. It’s not necessarily going to be the $700 grenade launcher, it’s going to be a little football-shaped pod that costs all of $4. People are stunned when they hear what I’ve done. But these are things that I know for a fact a lot of people can do. So I thought there’s got to be some way to awaken that self-confidence in people to enable them to do that.

How does your Emergency Mask Pod (EMP) work?

The emergency mask pod is basically a two-part football canister that holds a smoke mask made by Xcaper Industries, a pair of goggles and a little light-emitting device, most likely a LED light strip in the final version. The goggles allow people to concentrate more fully on getting out without having to worry about their eyes burning. The mask gives people the ability to breathe without dealing with the toxic effects of the smoke, and the light strip allows people to more easily locate the pod when it flies into a dark smoky room.

Designing the EMP pod was a process of trial and error. I’m a kid. I like things that go boom and shoot, and so my first thought was let’s just launch it up there. I did a whole bunch of research, and I was looking at a couple of different launcher mechanisms. I had the mascot of a local sports team fire a pneumatic cannon, basically a t-shirt cannon, into an open window from a very close distance, and accuracy was pretty abysmal. I went from a pneumatic cannon, which didn’t work at all, to a couple of so-so throwable devices, and ended up finally with a throwable canister with an accuracy of over 75 percent.

People think that the inventors of the world are the crazy mad scientists and white lab coats working long hours developing crazy new technologies. But that’s not the case. It’s not something reserved for Edison, Graham Bell, all the greats. Inventors are basically anybody and everybody who’s ever tried to solve a problem.

Using Digital Tools in the Music Classroom

Edutopia

Apps and tools are changing the way students learn to play an instrument, but there’s no getting around the need for lots of practice.

©Caia Images/500px

At the beginning of a recent band class, students took out their phones to use them as tuners, and then put them away. A director started to rehearse a new piece of music, and I saw a trombone player in the back of the ensemble with his phone still in use on his music stand.

I walked over, thinking through the exact variation of the phrase “What on God’s green earth are you doing?” that I’d use, but just before I opened my mouth I looked at his screen. He had searched online and found the conductor’s score for the piece of music we were reading—this score shows all the musicians’ parts, not just one instrument—and he was following along and taking notes on what occurred in his rests. He was able to see that the clarinets played two measures before he did, so he didn’t miss his entrance.

This was a great moment both for the student, who had enhanced his own learning through the self-directed technology integration, and for me, as I got to see another use for technology in the music classroom.

MIXING AGE-OLD PRACTICES WITH NEW TOOLS

In some ways, what we do in music classes is cutting edge: Differentiation, interactive learning, student-generated content, and performance-based and project-based learning were all standard parts of the music experience for students long before they were identified by researchers as best practices. The push in education for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) programs and makerspaces speaks to the increasing realization of the positive impact these practices have on student learning.

These practices can be augmented with the treasure trove of cool technologies available today; my students can connect with artists all over the country for a masterclass using Skype, write music for class on free notation programs like MuseScore and Noteflight, create their own playlists of listening examples for a piece of music on Spotify and YouTube, and work collaboratively on music projects through Google Suite’s Flat extension. Flat has a ton of potential: It can link to Google Classroom and allows kids to turn in assignments and work with you and their peers on creating or editing music. The downside is that it’s a paid subscription program.

Courtesy of MuseScore

MuseScore is one of many apps that are changing music instruction.

Yet in other ways, music classrooms are dinosaurs. Learning to play an instrument has periods of physical and mental tedium, and success has no shortcuts—students must invest their time. Finding ways to help students take the arduous but necessary steps to succeed—i.e., getting lots of practice—is tough. I can encourage them to practice their long tones and scales, but at what point do they take ownership of those fundamental skill-building exercises and really make them their own?

Some of my kids are finding ways to do just that: They practice together through FaceTime, play along with computer music programs like SmartMusic, and create backing tracks on Garage Band. Some have even started scheduling practice time through Google Calendar and have sent me recordings through the Google Classroom we’ve set up.

TECHNOLOGY CAN’T DO ALL THE WORK

Where I struggle with including technology is in getting students to realize that the three minutes spent setting up their instrument, two minutes signing on to the computer, five minutes listening to themselves on these applications, and the inevitable 10 minutes they divert into Facebook do not count as practice time.

I’m finding that the combination of cutting-edge pedagogical practices and the time-honored tedium of physical skill learning is increasingly difficult to navigate. The importance of what we teach resides in the process: Students who understand how to reverse-engineer a problem to create a working solution will find success in other avenues of life. I’m still figuring out how to use these educational technology tools to connect my kids with the act of learning, which is ostensibly the goal of an education.

I have no idea what the world will look like in five years, let alone 50. I don’t know what technology will be in vogue then and what songs will be hip. But I do know that helping my students engage meaningfully with the world around them is lasting. Teaching this engagement in today’s classroom has to include digital media because it is the conduit through which students are prepared to receive information, and their ownership of content is what will make life lessons stick.

iPhones and Children Are a Toxic Pair, Say Two Big Apple Investors

The Wall Street Journal

Two activist shareholders want Apple to develop tools and research effects on young people of smartphone overuse and addiction

Teens took a group selfie with a smartphone in New York’s Times Square on Dec. 1.
Teens took a group selfie with a smartphone in New York’s Times Square on Dec. 1. PHOTO: DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES

The iPhone has made Apple Inc. AAPL 1.03% and Wall Street hundreds of billions of dollars. Now some big shareholders are asking at what cost, in an unusual campaign to make the company more socially responsible.

A leading activist investor and a pension fund are saying the smartphone maker needs to respond to what some see as a growing public-health crisis of youth phone addiction.

Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, or Calstrs, which control about $2 billion of Apple shares, sent a letter to Apple on Saturday urging it to develop new software tools that would help parents control and limit phone use more easily and to study the impact of overuse on mental health.

The Apple push is a preamble to a new several-billion-dollar fund Jana is seeking to raise this year to target companies it believes can be better corporate citizens. It is the first instance of a big Wall Street activist seeking to profit from the kind of social-responsibility campaign typically associated with a small fringe of investors.

Adding splash, rock star Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, will be on an advisory board along with Sister Patricia A. Daly, a nun who successfully fought Exxon Mobil Corp. over environmental disclosures, and Robert Eccles, an expert on sustainable investing.

The Apple campaign would be unusual for an activist like Jana, which normally urges companies to make financial changes. But the investors believe that Apple’s highflying stock could be hurt in coming decades if it faces a backlash and that proactive moves could generate goodwill and keep consumers loyal to Apple brands.

“Apple can play a defining role in signaling 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 shareholders wrote in the letter, a copy of which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “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.”

Obsessive teenage smartphone usage has sparked a debate among academics, parents and even the people who helped create the iPhone.

Two teenage boys use smartphones in Vail, Colo., in June 2017.
Two teenage boys use smartphones in Vail, Colo., in June 2017. PHOTO: ROBERT ALEXANDER/GETTY IMAGES

Some have raised concerns about increased rates in teen depression and suicide and worry that phones are replacing old-fashioned human interaction. It is part of a broader re-evaluation of the effects on society of technology companies such as Google and Amazon.com Inc.and social-media companies like Facebook Inc. and Snap chat owner Snap Inc., which are facing questions about their reach into everyday life.

Apple hasn’t offered any public guidance to parents on how to manage children’s smartphone use or taken a position on at what age they should begin using iPhones.

Apple and its rivals point to features that give parents some measure of control. Apple, for instance, gives parents the ability to choose which apps, content and services their children can access.

The basic idea behind socially responsible investing is that good corporate citizenship can also be good business. Big investors and banks, including TPG, UBS Group AG and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.are making bets on socially responsible companies, boosting what they see as good actors and avoiding bad ones.

How the iPhone Was Born: Inside Stories of Missteps and Triumphs
On the iPhone’s 10th birthday, former Apple executives Scott Forstall, Tony Fadell and Greg Christie recount the arduous process of turning Steve Jobs’s vision into one of the best-selling products ever made. (Originally published June 25, 2017)

Big-name activists increasingly view bad environmental, social or governance policies as red flags. Jana plans to go further, putting its typical tools to work to drive change that may not immediately pay off.

Apple is an ambitious first target: The combined Jana-Calstrs stake is relatively small given Apple’s nearly $900 billion market value. Still, in recent years Apple has twice faced activists demanding it pare its cash holdings, and both times the company ceded some ground.

 

Chief Executive Tim Cook has led Apple’s efforts to be a more socially responsible company, for instance on environmental and immigration issues, and said in an interview with the New York Times last year that Apple has a “moral responsibility” to help the U.S. economy.

Apple has shown willingness to use software to address potentially negative consequences of phone usage. Amid rising concerns about distracted driving, the company last year updated its software with a “do not disturb while driving” feature, which enables the iPhone to detect when someone is behind the wheel and automatically silence notifications.

The iPhone is the backbone of a business that generated $48.35 billion in profit in fiscal 2017. It helped turn Apple into the world’s largest publicly listed company by market value, and anticipation of strong sales of its latest model, the iPhone X, helped its stock rise 50% in the past year. Apple phones made up 43% of U.S. smartphones in use in 2016, according to comScore , and an estimated 86 million Americans over age 13 own an iPhone.

Jana and Calstrs are working with Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University, who chronicled the problem of what she has dubbed the “iGen” in a book that was previewed in a widely discussed article in the Atlantic magazine last fall, and with Michael Rich of Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, known as “the mediatrician” for his work on the impact of media on children.

The investors believe both the content and the amount of time spent on phones need to be tailored to youths, and they are raising concern about the public-health effects of failing to act. They point to research from Ms. Twenge and others about a “growing body of evidence” of “unintentional negative side effects,” including studies showing concerns from teachers. That is one reason Calstrs was eager to support the campaign, according to the letter.

The group wants Apple to help find solutions to questions like what is optimal usage and to be at the forefront of the industry’s response—before regulators or consumers potentially force it to act.

The investors say Apple should make it easier and more intuitive for parents to set up usage limits, which could head off any future moves to proscribe smartphones.

The question is “How can we apply the same kind of public-health science to this that we do to, say, nutrition?” Dr. Rich said in an interview. “We aren’t going to tell you never go to Mickey D’s, but we are going to tell you what a Big Mac will do and what broccoli will do.”

(We’d like to hear from you: Is smartphone addiction among young people a public-health concern? Should companies like Apple be held responsible for tackling the issue? Email us at socialmedia@wsj.com with your comments.)

Write to David Benoit at david.benoit@wsj.com

OPEN LETTER FROM JANA PARTNERS AND CALSTRS TO APPLE INC.

Think Differently About Kids

January 6, 2018

Board of Directors
Apple Inc.
1 Infinite Loop
Cupertino, California 95014

Ladies & Gentlemen,

JANA Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (“we” or “us”) collectively own approximately $2 billion in value of shares of Apple Inc. (“Apple” or “you”).  As shareholders, we recognize your unique role in the history of innovation and the fact that Apple is one of the most valuable brand names in the world.  In partnership with experts including Dr. Michael Rich, founding director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School Teaching Hospital and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, and Professor Jean M. Twenge, psychologist at San Diego State University and author of the book iGen, we have reviewed the evidence and we believe there is a clear need for Apple to offer parents more choices and tools to help them ensure that young consumers are using your products in an optimal manner.  By doing so, we believe Apple would once again be playing a pioneering role, this time by setting an example about the obligations of technology companies to their youngest customers.  As a company that prides itself on values like inclusiveness, quality education, environmental protection, and supplier responsibility, Apple would also once again be showcasing the innovative spirit that made you the most valuable public company in the world.  In fact, we believe that addressing this issue now will enhance long-term value for all shareholders, by creating more choices and options for your customers today and helping to protect the next generation of leaders, innovators, and customers tomorrow.

More than 10 years after the iPhone’s release, it is a cliché to point out the ubiquity of Apple’s devices among children and teenagers, as well as the attendant growth in social media use by this group. What is less well known is that there is a growing body of evidence that, for at least some of the most frequent young users, this may be having unintentional negative consequences:

  • A study conducted recently by the Center on Media and Child Health and the University of Alberta found that 67% of the over 2,300 teachers surveyed observed that the number of students who are negatively distracted by digital technologies in the classroom is growing and 75% say students’ ability to focus on educational tasks has decreased. In the past 3 to 5 years since personal technologies have entered the classroom, 90% stated that the number of students with emotional challenges has increased and 86% said the number with social challenges has increased.  One junior high teacher noted that, “I see youth who used to go outside at lunch break and engage in physical activity and socialization.  Today, many of our students sit all lunch hour and play on their personal devices.”[i]
  • Professor Twenge’s research shows that U.S. teenagers who spend 3 hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35% more likely, and those who spend 5 hours or more are 71% more likely, to have a risk factor for suicide than those who spend less than 1 hour.[ii]
  • This research also shows that 8th graders who are heavy users of social media have a 27% higher risk of depression, while those who exceed the average time spent playing sports, hanging out with friends in person, or doing homework have a significantly lower risk.  Experiencing depression as a teenager significantly increases the risk of becoming depressed again later in life.[iii]
  • Also, teens who spend 5 or more hours a day (versus less than 1) on electronic devices are 51% more likely to get less than 7 hours of sleep (versus the recommended 9).  Sleep deprivation is linked to long-term issues like weight gain and high blood pressure.[iv]
  • A study by UCLA researchers showed that after 5 days at a device-free outdoor camp, children performed far better on tests for empathy than a control group.[v]
  • According to an American Psychological Association (APA) survey of over 3,500 U.S. parents, 58% say they worry about the influence of social media on their child’s physical and mental health, 48% say that regulating their child’s screen time is a “constant battle,” and 58% say they feel like their child is “attached” to their phone or tablet.[vi]

Some may argue that the research is not definitive, that other factors are also at work, and that in any case parents must take ultimate responsibility for their children.  These statements are undoubtedly true, but they also miss the point.  The average American teenager who uses a smart phone receives her first phone at age 10vii and spends over 4.5 hours a day on it (excluding texting and talking).viii  78% of teens check their phones at least hourly and 50% report feeling “addicted” to their phones.ix It would defy common sense to argue that this level of usage, by children whose brains are still developing, is not having at least some impact, or that the maker of such a powerful product has no role to play in helping parents to ensure it is being used optimally.  It is also no secret that social media sites and applications for which the iPhone and iPad are a primary gateway are usually designed to be as addictive and time-consuming as possible, as many of their original creators have publicly acknowledged.x  According to the APA survey cited above, 94% of parents have taken some action to manage their child’s technology use, but it is both unrealistic and a poor long-term business strategy to ask parents to fight this battle alone.  Imagine the goodwill Apple can generate with parents by partnering with them in this effort and with the next generation of customers by offering their parents more options to protect their health and well-being.

To be clear, we are not advocating an all or nothing approach.  While expert opinions vary on this issue, there appears to be a developing consensus that the goal for parents should be ensuring the developmentally optimal amount and type of access, particularly given the educational benefits mobile devices can offer.  For example, Professor Twenge’s research cited above has revealed peak mental health levels among teenagers who use devices 1 hour or less a day, with teens engaging in this limited use happier than teens who do not use devices at all.  According to a study of more than 10,000 North American parents conducted by researcher Alexandra Samuel, the children of parents who focus primarily on denying screen access are more likely to engage in problematic behaviors online than the children of parents who take an active role in guiding their technology usage.xi  Likewise, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health have found that while using a high number of social media platforms daily is linked to depression and anxiety in young adults, using a limited number does not have the same impact.xii

While these studies (and common sense) would suggest a balanced approach, we note that Apple’s current limited set of parental controls in fact dictate a more binary, all or nothing approach, with parental options limited largely to shutting down or allowing full access to various tools and functions.  While there are apps that offer more options, there are a dizzying array of them (which often leads people to make no choice at all), it is not clear what research has gone into developing them, few if any offer the full array of options that the research would suggest, and they are clearly no substitute for Apple putting these choices front and center for parents.  As Apple understands better than any company, technology is best when it is intuitive and easy to use.  More importantly, technology will continue to evolve as time goes on and play a greater and greater role in all of our lives.  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 to an app designer, or more accurately to hundreds of app designers, none of whom have critical mass.

This is a complex issue and we hope that this is the start of a constructive and well-informed dialogue, but we think there are clear initial steps that Apple can follow, including:

  • Expert Committee: Convening a committee of experts including child development specialists (we would recommend Dr. Rich and Professor Twenge be included) to help study this issue and monitor ongoing developments in technology, including how such developments are integrated into the lives of children and teenagers.
  • Research: Partnering with these and other experts and offering your vast information resources to assist additional research efforts.
  • New Tools and Options: Based on the best available research, enhancing mobile device software so that parents (if they wish) can implement changes so that their child or teenager is not being handed the same phone as a 40-year old, just as most products are made safer for younger users.  For example, the initial setup menu could be expanded so that, just as users choose a language and time zone, parents can enter the age of the user and be given age-appropriate setup options based on the best available research including limiting screen time, restricting use to certain hours, reducing the available number of social media sites, setting up parental monitoring, and many other options.
  • Education: Explaining to parents why Apple is offering additional choices and the research that went into them, to help parents make more informed decisions.
  • Reporting: Hiring or assigning a high-level executive to monitor this issue and issuing annual progress reports, just as Apple does for environmental and supply chain issues.

It is true that Apple’s customer satisfaction levels remain incredibly high, which is no surprise given the quality of its products.  However, there is also a growing societal unease about whether at least some people are getting too much of a good thing when it comes to technology,xiii which at some point is likely to impact even Apple given the issues described above.  In fact, even the original designers of the iPhone user interface and Apple’s current chief design officer have publicly worried about the iPhone’s potential for overuse,xiv and there is no good reason why you should not address this issue proactively.  As one of the most innovative companies in the history of technology, Apple can play a defining role in signaling 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.  Doing so 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. In fact, we believe addressing this issue now by offering parents more tools and choices could enhance Apple’s business and increase demand for its products.

Increasingly today the gap between “short-term” and “long-term” thinking is narrowing, on issues like public health, human capital management, environmental protection, and more, and companies pursuing business practices that make short-term sense may be undermining their own long-term viability. In the case of Apple, we believe the long-term health of its youngest customers and the health of society, our economy, and the Company itself, are inextricably linked, and thus the only difference between the changes we are advocating at Apple now and the type of change shareholders are better known for advocating is the time period over which they will enhance and protect value. As you can imagine, this is a matter of particular concern for CalSTRS’ beneficiaries, the teachers of California, who care deeply about the health and welfare of the children in their classrooms.

While you may already have started work on addressing the issues raised here, we would nonetheless appreciate the opportunity to discuss this matter further with the board to bring in a wider range of voices. We also encourage you to discuss this matter directly with Dr. Rich, Professor Twenge, or any member of JANA’s board of advisors for our new impact investing fund, which includes Patricia A. Daly, OP, Professor Robert G. Eccles, Sting, and Trudie Styler. In the meantime, should you wish to contact us we can be reached at (212) 455-0900 or (916) 414-7410.

Sincerely,

Barry Rosenstein
Managing Partner
JANA Partners LLC

Anne Sheehan
Director of Corporate Governance
The California State Teachers’ Retirement System