Boy uses mobile phone at home Image Credit: Getty Images

Two big shareholders of Apple are right to add their influential voices to those concerned with smartphone addiction. If they are serious about finding a solution, however, they’ll start looking elsewhere for progress on the issue. Like tobacco companies before them, tech companies are incapable of studying their products dispassionately and then regulating themselves for the common good.

The letter from Jana Partners and the California State Teachers Retirement System cites existing research, primarily by the best-known smartphone addiction alarmist, San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, to urge Apple to take action. According to Twenge, excessive screen time increases the probability of teenage depression and suicide. Though “some may argue that the research is not definitive” (and indeed, it has been challenged for confusing correlation with causation and for cherry-picking data), the investors point out that where there’s so much smoke, there has to be some form of fire:

“The average American teenager who uses a smart phone receives her first phone at age 10 and spends over 4.5 hours a day on it (excluding texting and talking); 78 per cent of teens check their phones at least hourly and 50 per cent report feeling “addicted” to their phones. 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.”

Big tobacco companies have been caught suppressing research damaging to their interests and observed funding research that was positive for them. There’s nothing in the history of the tech industry (think Uber’s lawless behaviour or the relentless fight by Apple and Google to avoid being taxed where they do business) to suggest it would behave differently. On the other hand, tech addiction alarmism can be a business, too. Twenge leverages her fame as a speaker and consultant, and she’s written a best-selling book. Tech companies also have plenty of enemies in industries they disrupt. Last year, a study asserting that Airbnb was turning into a platform for professional landlords made quite a splash in the media. It was funded by United States hotel lobbyists.

In tobacco’s case, it took decades of research — much of it government-funded and painstakingly peer-reviewed — to establish that prohibitive and even punitive regulation was needed. With tech products and tech companies’ business models, it shouldn’t take nearly as long. Within a year of Donald Trump’s election victory, dozens of authoritative papers have emerged on the spread and effect of fake news. But, as with tobacco, government agencies must commission and analyse the research until they’re reasonably satisfied that it provides a complete picture — especially since governments appear overeager to take action that may amount to censorship (following Germany last year, France is preparing to adopt an anti-fake news law).

The starting point is rather unimpressive. “The diversity of criteria and methodological approaches that have been used is notable, as is a certain lack of conceptual delimitation that has resulted in a broad spread of prevalent data,” says a 2016 review of available research on smartphone addiction states. “There is a consensus about the existence of cell-phone addiction, but the delimitation and criteria used by various researchers vary.” A 2017 review of studies dealing with the effect of gadget use on cognition also calls the extant literature “inconclusive”.

This calls for coordinated, interdisciplinary study programmes to obtain conclusive evidence on tech’s effects on the individual and on society. Only governments or blocs like the European Union are capable of creating such programmes and — one hopes — keeping them free of commercial bias.

I have a lot of intuitive sympathy for Twenge’s argument: I’m fighting a bad case of smartphone addiction, and I’ve stopped my younger daughter from playing iPad games since it demotivated her from doing anything else. I also believe that better research is necessary to figure out what’s going on. I have some specific questions for researchers to ask, too, as long as they can put together large, age-differentiated samples and observe subjects’ behaviour rather than rely on self-assessment questionnaires, as they mostly do today.

I’d like to know which smartphone applications, if any, cause withdrawal symptoms characteristic of substance addiction — irritability, lack of sleep, productivity declines. There’s no such thing as smartphone addiction per se — it’s specific software that keeps people checking their gadgets. I would also test heavy users of different apps for symptoms of social dislocation, depression and stress — and for factors that can mitigate these symptoms. I’d try to find out whether user reactions differ by demographic group and from country to country. I’d do more research using modern diagnostic equipment, like the recent South Korean study that found heavy smartphone users expose their brain chemistry to dangerous imbalances.

I’d also specifically focus on the subject of distractions and productivity. At this point, it’s anybody’s guess whether the contribution of smartphones and social networks to our working and school-related lives is net negative or net positive. Clear answers to that question for various areas of human endeavour, meanwhile, could prompt serious changes to corporate regulations and legislation — or prevent them. For example, we’d know whether the upcoming French ban on smartphones in schools is a good idea or an overreaction.

Millions of people died from tobacco-related diseases before governments and international organisations moved to accumulate a strong body of research that, in turn, lent credibility to anti-smoking campaigns. Screen or social network addiction may not be as deadly, but it’s capable of serious social and economic damage. It’s time to assess it properly — and to realise tech companies won’t be much help in organising and funding the effort.

— Bloomberg

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.