Dear Apple, Parental Controls Aren't the Answer

A letter to Apple is causing quite a stir this week. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and many other media outlets reported that the note from activist firm, Jana Partners, LLC, and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (which together control $2 billion of Apple’s shares) floated the idea that perhaps Apple should take some responsibility for the societal consequences of its products. The authors of the letter urged Apple to develop better ways for parents to govern their children’s use of devices because (wait for it) the products may be addictive.

Girls exchanging their numbers for Facetime before school.
Girls exchanging their numbers for Facetime before school.

Um, really? All I need to do is look at my 10-year-old daughter sneaking her brand-new iPhone under her covers to text her friends to know that. Or see my son repeatedly checking the “rings” on his Apple Watch.

Addicted to iPhones? #metoo. I check my phone constantly. (It actually just dinged - text message!) I crave that little jolt of adrenaline when I get a new message, a like on Instagram, a comment on Facebook. I’m constantly pulling out my phone in a crowd (was that ringtone mine?), just to check. I use it to take photos, schedule events for my four kids, manage activities. I can’t run my life without it. (My phone just dinged again!)

I wrote a Huff Post piece four years ago - under a short-lived pseudonym - with nine tips for beating iPhone addiction with specific suggestions from author, Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D, author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Family and Childhood Relationships in the Digital Age. I was determined to follow the rules to a tee. I stopped checking my phone during drop-off and pick-up. I prohibited phones at the dinner table. I had device-free time.

But my resolve quickly waned. Now, I feel myself “checking quickly” at suboptimal times, like when I’m crossing the street — but after I’ve looked both ways! — and I know I’m being bad. But I can’t stop.

The Jana letter urges Apple to take more responsibility by giving parents easy-to-use ways to monitor their kids’ behavior, rather than outsourcing it onto apps. We outfitted our twins’ phones and iPads with OurPact, an app that lets parents control which apps the kids use and when. Was that the best one to choose? Who knows. But we figured with only family and close friends’ contacts loaded and no Safari, the kids would be fine.

Within two weeks, my daughter was part of three different group chats with girlfriends. She didn’t even know who everyone was; a flood of 917 and 646 numbers popped up in her group messages. I’d given her a phone, but I hadn’t given her the tools to text properly. I hadn’t sat her down and told her that whenever you join a group chat, you have to scroll all the way up and read the whole thread before jumping into a conversation. I hadn’t told her to spell check, to not use voice memos, to be sensitive to what was going on and only jump in if it made sense. That nothing gets truly deleted and anything can be forwarded. Also, to figure out who she was texting with.

My son started group texting too with a jumbled assortment from his contact list. My ex, my former in-laws, my husband, a babysitter, my son’s buddy from school and I were lumped in a chat only to be sent some questionable photos of my son. My feelings were later hurt when I texted my son and he said, “I’m doing something. Stop texting me.” Excuse me? Step away from the device, sir.

Now that I’m in charge of my kids’ behavior online on top of everything else, I have to remind myself not only to stay on top of texts and emails on my own devices, but also to routinely check my kids’ messages. Reading through my daughter’s recent group texts to see if anyone was being rude to her (they weren’t, thankfully) was time-consuming and a bit mind-numbing but important.

“Anyone want to Facetime?”

“Eating dinner.”




“Stop, I’m doing something, guys!”

I’m relieved that I joined Instagram, Facebook and Twitter a couple months ago for my writing. Otherwise I wouldn’t even know what to tell them. Now, I make my daughter show me whatever she wants to post on Instagram and help her with the message and hashtags. At least she’s still listening. (Hey, my phone dinged again!)

I love that concerned investors want to get parents even more involved in dealing with these potentially harmful, addictive devices. But is that really the answer? More responsibility on us? As parents we have a million things going on. Instead of amping up parental controls, how about making cheaper, child-appropriate iPhones with limited functionality instead of making us the bad guys for restricting usage.

The letter even says that there may be more risk in severely restricting device usage for kids and that we should all be working productively together to take advantage of the benefits. This is a fine line, a slope too slippery for us time-starved, over-stressed parents. Perhaps Apple could be in charge of approving apps for the new kids’ iPhones by age of user. The fight that every parent first wages about whether or not to buy a device — and the subsequent countless decisions concerning exactly what to allow and when — would be partially solved.

I’m glad people are writing letters to Apple about taking responsibility for iPhones and iPads and how they affect kids. I hope that they don’t respond by passing the buck onto parents. We didn’t create this problem. We’re just charged with managing the effects and protecting our kids. It’s like asking a tobacco company to do a better job helping parents tell their kids not to smoke. How about fixing the product itself? Help us parents! We’ll probably buy more if you do. We’re the ones writing the checks. (Remember checks?)

My three-year-old son just stole my phone from my purse and told me that the Wifi wasn’t working. He’s going into Settings and trying to fix it. Gotta run. (Ding!)

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