Apple demonstrates its conflicted position on smartphone addiction with iOS 12

Gadget giant Apple made its devices more addictive while at the same time offering some tools to help people cope in the latest version of its mobile OS.

The latest version of iOS – 12 – has a bunch of novelty features apparently designed to appeal to children, including adjustable animated emojis, novelty camera effects and shared augmented reality experiences. At the same time it seemed to acknowledge its responsibility for ensuring kids occasionally leave the house and interact with the real world by introducing more tools to help limit smartphone use.

“We’re very excited about the new communications features we’re bringing to iPhone and iPad with Memoji, a more personal form of Animoji, fun camera effects and Group FaceTime,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP of Software Engineering. “With iOS 12, we’re enabling new experiences that weren’t possible before. We’re using advanced algorithms to make AR even more engaging and on-device intelligence to deliver faster ways to get things done using Siri.”

“In iOS 12, we’re offering our users detailed information and tools to help them better understand and control the time they spend with apps and websites, how often they pick up their iPhone or iPad during the day and how they receive notifications.

“We first introduced parental controls for iPhone in 2008, and our team has worked thoughtfully over the years to add features to help parents manage their children’s content. With Screen Time, these new tools are empowering users who want help managing their device time, and balancing the many things that are important to them.”

Here are the main things introduced in iOS 12:

  • Faster – Apple chucked out various suspiciously rounded-off percentages to show how much faster everything is when you use the new OS.
  • Shared AR experiences – persistent AR experiences tied to a specific location, object recognition and image tracking are all part of the second generation of Apple’s ARKit for developers.
  • Fun stuff – Memojis are Animojis that you can personalise, just when you thought they couldn’t get any funner. There are also new camera filters and things you can superimpose onto images to make them yet more fun.
  • Group FaceTime – group audio/video calling.
  • Siri shortcuts – suggestions and shortcuts to Siri commands that the Apple AI reckons you might want to use at a given time and place.
  • Saving you from yourself – giving users more power over things like notifications and augmenting the ‘do not disturb’ function to stop people getting in touch when you’re trying to concentrate on stuff.
  • Saving your kids from themselves – Screen Time is the feature that allows you to monitor how much time you or your kids spend on the device and on specific apps. It also allows you to limit the amount of time spent on an app and block access to the whole device at certain times.
  • Privacy – a tweak to the Safari browser are designed to help block social media “Like” or “Share” buttons and comment widgets from tracking users without permission.

“It came as little surprise that Apple introduced a suite of apps to address the growing levels of addiction to mobile devices,” said Ben Wood of CCS Insight. “The tools specifically designed to analyse and manage the amount of time kids spends on Apple devices will be a welcome, but potentially alarming new feature for many parents.”

“Apple’s focus on social responsibility closely followed that of Google at I/O and illustrates a new appreciation among the tech giants of their role in helping people manage their daily engagement with technology”

“It’s a smart move for Apple to reflect the current concerns around security and privacy with new tools to prevent web companies from actively tracking your browsing activity. Although it will be largely transparent to most consumers, it will help further Apple’s efforts to differentiate its products from rivals with strong security credentials.”

These tools are all well and good but if parents are looking to Apple to teach their kids balance and moderation then they might want to consider the extent of their own reliance on devices. A decade after the start of the modern smartphone era people seem to be increasingly questioning their relationship with these ubiquitous gadgets and how insidiously reliant on them we have become. That’s healthy and Apple is wise to accommodate it.

Apple moves to address the scourge of device addiction

Some Apple investors have had a go at it for corrupting children so it’s thinking of introducing more parental controls.

Jana Partners and he California State Teachers’ Retirement System collectively own around $2 billion of Apple stock (around 0.2% of the total). They also have little time for festive larks, opting instead to spend the Christmas period drafting a po-faced open letter to Apple, urging it to act on the public health ticking time-bomb that is iOS devices.

They published the letter on a website rather ambiguously called thinkdifferentlyaboutkids.com on 6 January, when most normal people were joining gyms, drinking super-food smoothies and contemplating resigning from their jobs. The underlying aim was laudable enough, but the tone and approach taken was at times comical.

“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,” it opened, citing one Professor Twenge as an expert source for this assertion. It went on to warn that “…there is a growing body of evidence that, for at least some of the most frequent young users, [use of Apple devices] may be having unintentional negative consequences.”

This body of evidence has already grown to no less than for separate pieces of research, which the letter outlines, but then somewhat undermines itself with the following passage: “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.”

So, to recap, the authors have a small collection of evidence that they concede is not definitive, but insist that anyone saying that is missing the point. The point seems to be that using Apple devices a lot MUST be having some kind of effect, especially what with social media being more addictive than drugs and that.

“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.” Unrealistic to ask parents to manage their children alone? Right, OK.

The next bit is a wonderful exercise in doublespeak. “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.”

There appears to be a growing consensus? What the hell is that supposed to mean? A ‘growing consensus’ alone could mean anything from two people cautiously agreeing to global unquestioning obedience but they won’t even fully commit to that, warning it could all be a mirage or hallucination. Twenge agrees.

There’s loads more of this sort of thing and, amazingly, Apple seems to have not only read all of it but been moved to act too. Venturebeat got a statement from Apple that is largely the standard ‘self-promotion dressed up as actually talking about things’ fare we have come to expect from Silicon Valley PR. But it does seem to acknowledge the need to ramp up its parental controls. Here it is in full

Apple has always looked out for kids, and we work hard to create powerful products that inspire, entertain, and educate children while also helping parents protect them online. We lead the industry by offering intuitive parental controls built right into the operating system.

With today’s iOS devices, parents have the ability to control and restrict content including apps, movies, websites, songs and books, as well as cellular data, password settings and other features. Effectively anything a child could download or access online can be easily blocked or restricted by a parent.

We began delivering these controls for iPhone in 2008 with the introduction of the App Store, building on what we’d learned from offering similar features for the Mac a few years before iPhone was introduced. We also have a long history of curating our content platforms to make sure they are free of offensive material, such as pornography, and clearly labeled so parents can determine if an app, movie or song is age-appropriate. Of course, we are constantly looking for ways to make our experiences better. We have new features and enhancements planned for the future, to add functionality and make these tools even more robust.

We think deeply about how our products are used and the impact they have on users and the people around them. We take this responsibility very seriously and we are committed to meeting and exceeding our customers’ expectations, especially when it comes to protecting kids.

As a parent who faces a daily struggle to contain his children’s iPad cravings, your correspondent is acutely aware of their allure to the young. This is, however, just one of countless ordeals that is parenthood and it would be ludicrous to blame Apple for making a device I chose to buy so useful. Having said that a more comprehensive suite of parental controls would be handy, such as the ones Microsoft has had in place for years. How about an app that lets you shut the iPad down remotely? Now that would be fun – Muhahaha!