Education community welcomes investors' concerns about tech addiction

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It sent shockwaves through both the tech and investment communities last weekend when two major Apple shareholders sent an open letter to the company, calling on it to address the “unintentional negative consequences” of the ubiquity of technology in children’s lives.

“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,” the joint letter from Jana Partners LLC and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CALSTRS) stated. The two entities hold approximately $2 billion of Apple stock.

“While it’s from Apple investors, it’s not just an Apple problem,” said Tracy Weeks, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), in an interview with EdScoop. “What we’re seeing in the letter is, ‘Spend more dollars on doing the research.’ We need to understand [the impact of technology] because there are enough people anecdotally raising concerns.”

The investors’ letter identifies some of the evidence of the growing problem. For example, they cite a recent study from the Center on Media and Child Health and the University of Alberta, which found that upwards of two-thirds of the more than 2,300 teachers surveyed observed that “the number of students who are negatively distracted by digital technologies in the classroom is growing” and three-fourths say “students’ ability to focus on educational tasks has decreased.”

Common Sense, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing parents, teachers and policymakers with useful information on children’s use of media and technology, welcomed the letter.

“We are very pleased to see that leading shareholders have spoken out about their concerns for the health and safety of kids on cell phones and online,” Jim Steyer, the founder and CEO of Common Sense, said in a statement.

“We’ve been hearing this from our education audience for the last ten years,” said Brisa Ayub, director of educational programs at Common Sense, in an interview. Educators are dealing with the effects of tech addiction just as families are, but they don’t have as much ownership of how the technology is used, she added.

“Educators don’t have a lot of resources about when it’s acceptable to use this app or that app,” Ayub said. “We’re all about, ‘Take a step back and ask … why you’re using it.’ It’s about giving [students] the tools and help them have a better internal compass.”

Weeks said several states with parent groups have brought up their concerns to SETDA about students’ screen time, including some discussion about possible recommendations to members about how to address many of the problems, but SETDA has not yet settled on any guidelines.

“The fine line we have to walk is making sure we incorporate best use of devices,” she said. “Most of the states already have some kind of digital use or digital safety built into their state standards that [are] supposed to be incorporated across the curriculum in their schools.”

Weeks said information about safe digital practices could be incorporated in many areas. The dangers of texting and driving already are incorporated in many driver’s education classes, for instance, and in classes like physical education getting kids outside and active continues to be an important part.

“In health class, it could be about healthy behaviors [around technology use and] what it means to be a good digital citizen,” she said.

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