- Apple's two most senior executives have answered questions about people overusing smartphones by suggesting they get an Apple Watch.
- The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and The Guardian have all recently published long stories about how smartphones can be addictive.
- Smartphone overuse is a growing public-relations problem for Apple — one it doesn't have a strong answer for yet.
Jony Ive, Apple's chief design officer, is clearly proud of his role in the invention of the iPhone, the device that spurred the smartphone boom, created multiple billion-dollar industries, and changed the world.
But he acknowledges that too much of a good thing can be bad.
He pointed to "constant use" of an iPhone as one example of iPhone misuse during a public talk at The New Yorker TechFest on Friday in New York, after the magazine's editor, David Remnick, pressed him on whether he ever felt ambivalent about inventing the iPhone.
Does Ive check his email and texts constantly, the way many of us feel like we have to on our iPhones?
"With my new [Apple] Watch, I tend to not," he said.
His solution to the increasing problem of device overstimulation — get another device made by Apple — echoes how Apple CEO Tim Cook handled a similar question Fortune asked earlier this year about the perception of iPhones as a tool of "bad social behavior, like distractedness and children who stare for too long into a screen."
"Our whole premise is to infuse our products with humanity," Cook said, before segueing directly into a sales pitch: "So if you think about what the watch does ... it allows you to have a curated level of connection without being absorbed in it."
To me, Cook's and Ive's answers are distinctly unsatisfactory.
To me, Cook's and Ive's answers are distinctly unsatisfactory — and Cook's is unusually unclear for him and jargon-heavy.
While neither executive is denying that there's a growing distraction problem created by smartphones, neither wants to dwell on the issue.
The solution to a problem created by an Apple product should not be another Apple product — one that, in my experience testing an Apple Watch over the past three weeks, actually has contributed to my level of device distraction. (Apple Watch: Buzz. You've hit your move goal! Buzz. You've received a text message! Buzz. Here's a headline: "Trump White House to repeal...")
Starting to become obvious
The downsides of smartphones being such addictive and entertaining devices are starting to become obvious. If you live in a city, for example, you're probably used to seeing "smartphone neck" — people buried in their iPhones on the subway and the sidewalk.
The problem is clear to parents who sit down to dinner with their kids only to have them buried in Snapchat and "Clash Royale" the entire time.
It's clear to iPhone users who turn like Pavlov's dog anytime they hear the iPhone notification sound, even when it comes from someone else's phone.
Eventually, Apple is going to have to come up with a clear and coherent answer to questions about iPhone overuse. It's going to be asked more and more of Apple executives at every public occasion.
Apple is fortunate right now in that it's not facing the same level of scrutiny about regulation and fake-news issues as its Silicon Valley neighbors Google and Facebook. Apple is good at privacy and security, and it doesn't sell many ads.
But perhaps smartphone addiction is the big public-relations problem starting to appear on Apple's horizon: What can it do about its products being so good that its customers want to use them all the time?
Over half of iPhone owners can't imagine life without it
There's a lot of data about the increasing importance of a smartphone in the modern world. In one 2015 Gallup survey, 52% of iPhone owners agreed that they "can't imagine life without my smartphone," and 42% of smartphone owners said they would feel anxious if they didn't have their phone for a day.
That stat was highlighted in a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by Nicholas Carr, who writes that smartphones "hijack" people's minds.
Here's an incomplete survey of study findings cited by Carr:
- When someone's phone beeps or buzzes during a task, their work gets sloppier.
- When a smartphone rings but can't be picked up, people's blood pressure spikes and their pulse quickens.
- When researchers left subjects' phones in plain view, they did significantly worse on tests.
- The "integration of smartphones into daily life" appears to cause a "brain drain," a researcher at the University of Texas says.
- Students at the University of Arkansas who didn't bring their phones to class scored a full letter grade higher on a test.
"Phone makers like Apple and Samsung and app writers like Facebook and Google design their products to consume as much of our attention as possible during every one of our waking hours, and we thank them by buying millions of the gadgets and downloading billions of the apps every year ...
"As strange as it might seem, people's knowledge and understanding may actually dwindle as gadgets grant them easier access to online data stores."
The op-ed was widely praised by figures who see their lives in the studies cited, including Arianna Huffington, who has been loudly saying that smartphone use is hurting our ability to sleep.
'Me and my phone, we are best friends, I'm closer to my phone than family'
There's also anecdotal evidence that smartphones have downsides.
Take Kylie and Kushana, British 13-year-olds who were recently profiled as part of a Financial Times feature about kids and smartphones.
"Me and my phone, we are best friends, I'm closer to my phone than family," Kushana told the Financial Times. "It's the first thing I look at in the morning, and the last thing at night."
Kylie also said she felt odd without her iPhone.
"To be honest, I isolate myself when I'm at home. I'm always on my phone when I'm [there]. It's not always because I'm talking to someone, I just don't feel right without it," Kylie told the newspaper. "So I hang out on the couch with my phone and my headphones. I don't mind talking to real people as long as I have my phone next to me."
The Financial Times reported that at one school in London, most students had an iPad by the time they're 8 and got their first smartphone when they became teenagers, when "addictive attachment" starts.
Of course, smartphones aren't all bad — the Financial Times' reporting highlighted how phones' internet access can help ostracized kids find a community across the world.
But there is a lot of evidence that the benefits of having the internet in your pocket come with significant downsides, and that someone is going to have to pay for the reduction in attention.
Some ex-Silicon Valley designers blame apps, like Justin Rosenstein, who invented the "like" button and who asked his assistant to set up his iPhone to prevent him from downloading apps, The Guardian reported in a fantastic look at the issues. It's the app makers that are optimizing feedback loops to get their users liking or retweeting more.
But it is increasingly appearing as if a lot of people will blame Apple as well — it's part of the price to pay for inventing the smartphone and its huge media machine that puts iPhones on billboards and commercials around the world.
One engineer listed on Apple's patent for the push notification and who no longer works at Apple shrugged off responsibility in an interview with The Guardian, saying his invention was not "inherently good or bad" and that it was a "larger discussion for society."
That's fair — as Ive said last Friday, any tool can be misused, especially one as powerful as an iPhone. But as society discusses smartphones and addiction, eyes are going to be on Apple for answers and guidance.
Apple needs a better response than "get an Apple Watch."
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